Category Archives: Freedom of Information

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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ICO FOI Decision Notices – insufficient attention to detail?

Anyone used to reading Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) decision notices from the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) will be familiar with this sort of wording:

The Commissioner has concluded that the public interest favours maintaining the exemption contained at section x(y) of FOIA. In light of this decision, the Commissioner has not gone on to consider the public authority’s reliance on section z(a) of FOIA.

In fact, a search on the ICO website for the words “has not gone on” throws up countless examples.

What lies behind this approach is this: a public authority, in refusing to disclose recorded information, is entitled to rely on more than one of the FOIA exemptions, because information might be exempt under more than one. An obvious example would be where information exempted from disclosure for the purposes of safeguarding national security (section 24 FOIA) would also likely to be exempt under section 31 (law enforcement).

One assumes that the ICO does this for pragmatic reasons – if information is exempt it’s exempt, and application of a further exemption in some ways adds nothing. Indeed, the ICO guidance for public authorities advises

you [do not]  have to identify all the exemptions that may apply to the same information, if you are content that one applies

Now, this is correct as a matter of law (section 78 of FOIA makes clear that, as a general principle, reliance by public authorities upon the Act’s exemptions is discretionary), and the ICO’s approach when making decisions is understandable, but it is also problematic, and a recent case heard by the Information Tribunal illustrates why.

In Morland v IC & Cabinet Office (EA/2016/0078) the Tribunal was asked to determine an appeal from Morland, after the Cabinet Office had refused to disclose to him minutes of the Honours and Decorations Committee, and after the ICO had upheld the refusal. As the Tribunal noted

The Cabinet Office refused the Appellant’s information request in reliance upon s. 37 (1) (b) and s. 35 (1) (a) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (“FOIA”) [and the ICO] Decision Notice found (at paragraph 13) that the exemption under s. 37 (1) (b) was 5 engaged by the request and (at paragraph 25) that the public interest favoured maintaining the exemption “by a narrow margin”.  The Decision Notice expressly did not consider the Cabinet Office’s reliance on s. 35 (1) (b). [emphasis added]

The problem arose because the Tribunal found that, pace the ICO’s decision, the exemption at section 37(1)(b) was not engaged (because that section creates an exemption to disclosure if the information relates to the conferring by the crown of an honour or dignity, and the information request related to whether an entirely new honour should be created). But what of the exemption at s35(1)(b)? Well, although it would not always be the case in similar circumstances, here the Tribunal and the parties were in a bind, because, as the Tribunal said

We are left with a situation where, as the Decision Notice did not reach a conclusion on that issue, none of the parties appear to have regarded s. 35 (1) (a) as being seriously in play in this appeal, with the effect that we have received limited argument on that issue

There is no power to remit a decision to the ICO (see IC v Bell [2014] UKUT 0106 (AAC) (considered in a Panopticonblog post here), so the Tribunal had to make findings in relation to s35, despite a “concern whether it is right to do so”. On the expressly limited evidence before it it found that the exemption was not engaged at the time of the request, and, accordingly, upheld Morland’s appeal, saying that it

[regarded] the failure of the Decision Notice to determine a key issue between the parties as rather unsatisfactory

Whether this will lead the ICO to revisit its apparent policy of, at least at times, focusing on only one of multiple claimed exemptions remains to be seen. It’s not often that I have sympathy with the Cabinet Office when it comes to matters of FOIA, but there is a modicum here.

Nonetheless, I think what this case does suggest is that a public authority should, when faced with an appeal of an ICO Decision Notice upholding a FOIA refusal, give strong consideration to whether it needs to be joined to the appeal (as, admittedly, the Cabinet Office was here) and to make sure that its response to the appeal (under part 27 of the Tribunal Rules) fully deals with all applicable exemptions, notwithstanding the contents of the Decision Notice. In this way, the Tribunal can, where necessary, take as fully-apprised a decision as possible on all of those exemptions.

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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The Reading of the 30,000

There is some irony in the quite extraordinary news that the Independent Commission on Freedom of Information received 30,000 submissions in response to its public call for written evidence: one of the considerations in the call for evidence was the fact that “reading time” cannot currently be factored in as one of the tasks which determines whether a request exceeds the cost limit under section 12 of the FOI Act. 

Lord Burns has now announced that

Given the large volume of evidence that we have received, it will take time to read and consider all of the submissions

Well, yes. The Commission originally planned to report its findings “before the end of the year” (that is, the parliamentary year, which ends on 17 December). It also planned to read all the evidence which was before the Justice Committee when it conducted its post-legislative scrutiny of FOIA in 2012, and there was a fair amount of that. But let us put that to one side, and let us estimate that reading and where necessary taking a note of each of the current 30,000 submissions will take someone ten minutes (as some submissions were 400 pages long, this is perhaps a ridiculously conservative estimate). That equates to 300,000 minutes, or 5000 hours, or 208 days of one person’s time (assuming they never slept or took a break: if we imagine that they spent eight hours reading every day, it would be 625 days).

I don’t know what sort of administrative support Lord Burns and his fellow Commission members have been given, but, really, to do their job properly one would expect them to read the submissions themselves. There are five of them, so even assuming they shared the reading between them, we might expect they would between them take 125 days (without a break, and with little or no time to undertake their other jobs and responsibilities) to digest the written evidence.

Lord Burns has sensibly conceded that the Commission will not be able to report by the end of the year, and he has announced that two oral evidence sessions will take place in January next year (although who will participate has not been announced, nor whether the sessions will be broadcast, nor even whether they will take place in public).

What is clear though is that someone or ones has a heck of a job ahead of them. I doubt that the Commission, as an advisory non-departmental public body, would be amenable to judicial review, so it is probably not strictly bound by public law duties to take all relevant evidence into account when arriving at its decisions and recommendations, but, nonetheless, a failure so to do would open it up to great, and justified, criticism.

And, one final point, as Ian Clark noticed when submitting his evidence, the web form was predicated on the assumption that those making submissions would only be from an “organisation”. Surely the Commission didn’t assume that the only people with views on the matter were those who received FOI requests? Surely they didn’t forget that, ultimately, FOIA is for the public?

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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The first time Parliament heard the term “Freedom of Information”

…if there is one matter on which I feel more strongly than another it is that in a democratic community the foundation of good government lies in freedom of information, freedom of thought, and freedom of speech: You can not have a country, which is governed by its people, wisely and well governed, unless those people are permitted access to accurate information, and are permitted the free exchange of their views and their opinions: That is essential to good government: It is quite true that if you grant that freedom there will be abuses: It is quite true that foolish people advocate foolish views: That is one of the many unfortunate corollaries

Although the past is a foreign country, some of its citizens can seem familiar: the quotation above is from Liberal politician Sir Richard Durning Holt, and was made in a parliamentary debate seven months short of a hundred years ago. It contains the first recorded parliamentary use of the term “freedom of information”. It was said as part of a debate about conscientious objectors to the “Great War” (Holt was drawing attention to what he saw as the unfair and counter-productive prosecutions of objectors). He may not have meant “freedom of information” in quite the way we mean it now, but his words resonate, and – at a time when our own Freedom of Information Act 2000 is under threat – remain, as a matter of principle, remarkably relevant.

I found the quotation using Glasgow University’s extraordinary corpus of “nearly every speech given in the British Parliament from 1803-2005”. I commend it to you, and, a century on, commend Sir Richard’s words to Jack Straw and his fellow members on the Independent Commission on Freedom of Information.

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 discloses names of Operation Motorman journalists

In August this year the Upper Tribunal dismissed an appeal by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) of a prior ruling that he must disclose the names of certain journalists who appeared on a list 305 names seized by the ICO during a raid in 2003 on the home of private investigator Steve Whittamore. The raid was part of “Operation Motorman”, an investigation which forms part of the background to the various civil and criminal proceedings generated by the phone-hacking scandals, and to the establishment of the Leveson Inquiry.

The names which have been ordered to be disclosed have now been provided by the ICO to the requester, the clearly indefatigable Chris Colenso-Dunne. Chris has kindly given the list to me, and I make it available in the attachment below. One name stands out in particular: Rebekah Wade (as she then was), now Brooks, who has always denied knowledge of the phone-hacking which took place while she was editor of the now defunct News of the World (and who was, of course, acquitted in 2014 of conspiring to hack phones when editor of that paper and of making corrupt payments to public officials when editor of The Sun, as well as of all other charges).

It is important to be aware, as the Upper Tribunal said, that presence on the list means nothing more than that the journalists in question

had commissioned Mr Whittamore to obtain information… The information did not carry with it any assertion as to the actual or alleged commission of any crime by those journalists [para 38]

No doubt the list will generate further comment, though.

ICO Motorman List

[this post was edited to remove a paragraph where I’d mistakenly taken the list to mean that Wade was working for “Femail” at the time]

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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Easy as 1-2-3…?

Has the ICO got its FOI sums wrong?

I wrote recently about a decision of the Information Tribunal where the Tribunal held that the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) had wrongly calculated the time for compliance with a request made under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) and consequently had said that the public authority in question had contravened its obligations under section 10(1) of FOIA, when in fact it had complied on time. 

One might have thought the ICO would have made sure that it didn’t make this counting mistake again, particularly in cases where an error can make the difference between requests being either compliant or not compliant with FOIA. I was rather surprised, therefore, to notice  a recently published decision notice by the ICO in which (if my calculations are correct) they have again wrongly calculated the time for compliance and consequently issued a decision against a public authority when in fact the public authority had complied with its obligations under section 10(1). As I have noted before, the 20 working day time for compliance with a FOIA request does not include bank holidays even where the bank holiday in question applies only in one part of the UK. So, for instance, a bank holiday in Scotland (say, St Andrew’s Day), but not in the rest of the UK, is still classed as a non-working day for the purposes of FOIA. In this instance one of the requests for information was made on March 16, 2014 and responded to on April 14 2014. The ICO said this meant that the public authority in question – the Student Loans Company – had taken 21 working days to respond. However this seems to overlook the fact that March 17 is a bank holiday in Northern Ireland, where it marks St Patrick’s Day. Accordingly it should not have been counted as a working day by the ICO for the purposes of FOIA. 

By my calculations the public authority responded on the 20th working day, they complied with their obligations under FOIA, and the ICO has issued a defective decision notice. I wonder if an appeal has been lodged.

There are a surprising number of bank holidays throughout the year, when one takes into account those in all parts of the UK, and it is worth bearing in mind that if one of those days falls within any of the putative 20 working days for compliance with a FOIA request then it will push the time for compliance back that one extra day. I reckon (and as nerdy as I am I’m not so nerdy as to have (yet) worked it out) that there’s probably something like a 50% chance that a FOIA request will actually contain a day that is a bank holiday, and maybe one that is not one that applies uniformly throughout the UK. All FOIA requesters, practitioners and, indeed, regulators, should bear this in mind.

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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Big Brother is misleading you

The best books… are those that tell you what you know already…

Big Brother Watch (BBW) is a campaigning organisation, a spin-off from the right-wing lobby group The Taxpayers’ Alliance, described as a “poorly disguised Conservative front”, a large part of whose funds come “from wealthy donors, many of whom are prominent supporters of the Conservative party“. To an extent, that doesn’t matter to me: BBW has done a lot to highlight privacy issues which chime with some of my own concerns – eg excessive use of CCTV, biometrics in schools – but regularly they rail against local authority “databreaches” in a way I think is both unhelpful and disingenuous.

The latest example is a report issued this week (on 11th August 2015) entitled “A Breach of Trust – how local authorities commit 4 data breaches every day”. Martin Hoskins has already done an excellent job in querying and critiquing the findings

At first glance, it looks impressive. It’s almost 200 pages long. But, and this is a big but, there are only a few pages of analysis – once you get past page 12, a series of annexes contain the responses from each local authority, revealing how minor the vast majority of the reported incidents (occurring between April 2011 and April 2014) actually were.

BBW started work on this report by submitting FOI requests to each local authority in June 2014. Quite why it has taken so to publish the results, bearing in mind that FOI requests should be returned within 20 days, is beyond me. Although BBW claims to have received a 98% response rate, some 212 authorities either declined to provide information, or claimed that they had experienced no data breaches between 2011 and 2014.

But plenty of media outlets have already uncritically picked the report up and run stories such as the BBC’s “Council data security ‘shockingly lax'” and the Mail’s “Councils losing personal data four times a day”. Local news media also willingly ran stories about their local councils’ data.

However, my main criticism of this BBW report is a fundamental one: their methodology was so flawed that the results are effectively worthless. Helpfully, although at the end of the report, they outline that methodology:

A Freedom of Information request was sent to all local authorities beginning on the 9th June 2014.

We asked for the number of individuals that have been convicted for breaking the Data Protection Act, the number that had had their employment terminated as the result of a DPA breach, the number that were disciplined internally, the number that resigned during proceedings and the number of instances where no action was taken.

The FOI request itself asked for

a list of the offences committed by the individual in question

The flaw is this: individuals within an organisation can not, in general terms “break” or “breach” the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA). An employee is a mere agent of his or her employer, and under the DPA the legal person with the general obligations and liabilities is the “data controller”: an employee of an organisation does not have any real status under the DPA – the employer will be the “person who determines the purposes for which and the manner in which personal data are processed”, that is, the data controller. An individual employee could, in specific terms, “break” or “breach” the DPA but only if they committed an offence under section 55, of unlawfully obtaining etc. personal data without the consent of the data controller. There is a huge amount of confusion, and sloppy thinking, when it comes to what is meant by a data protection “breach”, but the vast majority of the incidents BBW report on are simply incidents in which personal data has been compromised by the council in question as data controller. No determination of whether the DPA was actually contravened will have been made (if only because the function of determining whether the Act has been contravened is one which falls to the Information Commissioner’s Office, or the police, or the courts). And if BBW wanted a list of offences committed, that list would be tiny.

To an extent, therefore, those councils who responded with inaccurate information are to blame. FOI practitioners are taught (when they are well taught) to read a request carefully, and where there is uncertainty or ambiguity, to seek clarification from the requester. In this instance, I did in fact advise one local authority to do so. Regrettably, rather than clarifying their request, BBW chose not to respond, and the council is listed in the report as “no response received”, which is both unfair and untrue.

I am not saying that data security and data protection in councils is not an area of concern. Indeed, I am sure that in some places it is lax. But councils deal with an enormous amount of sensitive personal data, and mistakes and near misses will sometimes happen. Councils are encouraged to (and should be applauded for) keeping registers of such incidents. But they shouldn’t disclose those registers in response to ill-informed and badly worded FOI requests, because the evidence here is that they, and the facts, will be misleadingly represented in order to fit a pre-planned agenda.

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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Non-compliant FOI compliance?

What does it mean to “comply” with an FOI request? This would appear to be a rather arid question, but when the provisions of section 14(2) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) come into play, it is not perhaps as unambiguous as one might think.

Section 14(2) provides that

Where a public authority has previously complied with a request for information which was made by any person, it is not obliged to comply with a subsequent identical or substantially similar request from that person unless a reasonable interval has elapsed between compliance with the previous request and the making of the current request [emphasis added]

I confess that, until recently, as both a practitioner and an observer, I had never given this too much thought: surely a public authority complies with a request by complying with its general obligations under FOIA? Namely, confirming whether requested information is held, and, where it is, either communicating it to the requester or providing a refusal notice, while at the same time providing appropriate advice and assistance.

However, it appears (and apologies to anyone who’s known this for ages – I didn’t) that the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) take a different view on section 14(2). Their approach, reflected in guidance, is that for the purposes of section 14(2) at least, a public authority has only previously complied with a request when it has either disclosed the information, or confirmed that it is not held:

A public authority may only apply Section 14(2) where it has either;
– previously provided the same requester with the information in response to an earlier FOIA request; or
– previously confirmed the information is not held in response to an earlier FOIA request from the same requester.
If neither of these conditions applies then the public authority must deal with the request in the normal manner.

So, if the authority has previously refused to disclose information, on the valid basis of the application of an exemption or exemptions, it cannot refuse to deal with a subsequent identical request, and it must (one assumes, and unless circumstances have changed) issue a fresh, identical, refusal notice.

This approach is also reflected in a recent decision notice relating to a request to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) for the names of charities and companies who have given placements to Mandatory Work Activity or Help to Work participants. DWP had replied to a previous almost identical request, refusing to disclose the information on the basis of the exemptions at section 29(1)(a), 29(1)(b), 36(2)(c) and 43(2) of FOIA. This time, they refused to reply to the request citing section section 14(2). Not on, said ICO:

the DWP can only rely on section 14(2) if, inter alia, it had previously complied with the same or substantially similar request by supplying the requested information to the complainant or confirming it was not held

As the previous request had resulted in the applications of exemptions to refuse disclosure, section 14(2) was not engaged. This was despite the fact that – as DWP pointed out – a previous ICO decision notice had actually said that its position was that

the term ‘previously complied with a request for information’ refers to whether an authority has responded to the previous requests by either providing information or by issuing a refusal notice (emphasis added)

ICO explained this discrepancy by saying first, they were not bound by previous decisions, and second, that the earlier decision was “erroneous” and contrary to their own guidance.

I suspect the ICO are drawing a distinction between the concepts of “complying with a request” (i.e. fulfilling it) and “complying with FOIA obligations”. and I’m not completely sure I’m in disagreement with the ICO’s settled position. But I think I am, if only because, followed to its logical extension, we would be saying that a public authority has not “complied” with any request for information, if it has validly applied exemptions and refused to disclose the information. This lacks logic: it will be interesting to see if DWP appeal.

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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