Category Archives: human rights

“Access delayed is access denied” – ICO’s terrible FOI compliance

Statistics show that the ICO is regularly delayed – sometimes very severely so – when responding to FOIA requests made to it. Is there a need for a review of the ICO’s own compliance?

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) is tasked with regulating and enforcing the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA). The ICO is also – perhaps unusually for a regulator – subject to the law it regulates (it is a public authority, listed in Schedule One to FOIA). This means that – sometimes – the ICO must investigate its own compliance with FOIA. It also means that its own compliance with FOIA, and the seriousness with which it treats its own compliance, is bound to be viewed by other public authorities as an example.

FOIA is, let us not forget, of profound democratic importance. The right to receive information is one of the components of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham has previously said

openness of information, through FOI laws and other instruments, is vitally-important not only for government accountability in the moment, but also for the long-term health of our democracy… since information is power, the right to information goes to the heart of a democracy’s healthy functioning.

FOIA lays down timescales for complying with a request for information. The core one says that information must in general be provided within twenty working days. In that same speech Ms Denham referred to timeliness (“It is rightly said that access delayed is access denied”) and the benefits of publicising delays by authorities:

Reporting publicly on timeliness has proved to be a powerful tool for improving timely disclosure of information. And public authorities have used their poor grades to push successfully for more resources where the demand has outstripped supply.

Indeed, she has previously taken government departments to task for their FOIA delays

I think that central government though has got away with – I’m not going to say murder – I think they’ve got away with behaviour that needs to be adjusted…I know which organisations we need to focus on…

The ICO certainly has enforcement powers, and a policy which informs it when action is appropriate. The Freedom of information regulatory action policy (which doesn’t appear to have been updated since 2012) says that enforcement may be appropriate where there are “repeated or significant failures to meet the time for compliance” and that, when deciding to take enforcement action, the ICO will take into account such factors as

the severity and / or repetition of the breach; whether there is evidence that obligations are being deliberately or persistently ignored; whether there would be an educative or deterrent affect; whether it would help clarify or test an issue; and whether an example needs to be created or a precedent set.

With all of this in mind, one organisation the ICO apparently needs to focus on is itself.

Regrettably, and rather oddly, the ICO doesn’t publish figures on its own FOI compliance, except at a very high level, and combined with other types of access requests, in its annual report). This is despite the fact that the Code of Practice issued under section 45 of FOIA, observance of which the ICO is specifically tasked with promoting, says that public authorities with more than 100 members of staff should published detailed statistics on compliance.

However, what evidence there is indicates a repeated, and serious, failure by the ICO to comply with the timescales it is supposed to enforce on others. Of the formal decision notices issued by the ICO against itself, in 2020 and 2021, 50% (10 out of 20) found a failure to comply with the statutory timescale (and two further ones appear – from an analysis of the notices – to have involved delay, without resulting in a specific finding of such). And it is worth noting that these are formal decisions where requesters have asked for formal notices to be issued – it is almost inevitable that there will be similar delays in a significant proportion of those requests which don’t make it to a formal decision.

Indeed, analysis of recent requests to the ICO made on the request website WhatDoTheyKnowsimilarly shows delays in approximately half the requests. But even worse, many of those delays are of an extraordinary length. In two cases, requests made in February 2021 have only been responded to in November – delays of ninemonths, and in other cases there are delays of six, four and two months.

COVID has – no doubt – affected the ICO, as it has affected all organisations. But if the ICO needs extra resource to comply with FOIA, it has certainly not indicated that. Its published approach to regulatory compliance during the pandemic (not updated since June this year) says that where public authorities have backlogs, the ICO expects them to “establish recovery plans focused on bringing the organisation back within compliance with the Freedom of Information Act within a reasonable timeframe”. In the accompanying blogpost the Deputy Commissioner said that

we have seen more and more organisations adjusting to the circumstances, and returning to offering the transparency…our [own] recovery plan has had a positive impact in removing and reducing backlogs

If that is the case it is hard to know why the WhatDoTheyKnow examples (and one’s own experiences) show precisely the opposite picture.

What is also of concern – though this is an issue for policy-makers and Parliament – is that there is nothing that an individual can do when faced with delays like this, except complain – once more to the ICO. FOIA expressly does not permit individuals to take civil action against public authorities for failure to comply – the only recourse is through the ICO as regulator. Short of bringing judicial review proceedings, citizens must just suck it up.

In 2016 the Independent Commission on Freedom of Information said that FOIA was “generally working well”, but that it “would like to see a significant reduction in the delays in the process”. In 2016, that was not addressed at the ICO, but now it most certainly could be. That Independent Commission has long been dissolved. Meanwhile, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee is conducting an inquiry into the Cabinet Office’s FOI handling. 

But, maybe, there actually needs to be some Parliamentary oversight of the ICO’s own FOI compliance.

The views in this post (and indeed most 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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Journalist has to seek pro bono support to enforce subject access request

My firm Mishcon de Reya is acting for John Pring, stalwart editor of Disability News Service, who has been seeking access to his personal data from DWP for more than a year. The ICO upheld his complaint but (see this blog, passim) said it wouldn’t take steps to require DWP to comply.

More here, and here.

As a result of the latest letter, and media coverage, ICO has said it is reopening the case.

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You what?

Twice in recent months the outgoing Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, has given speeches including these words

Data protection law was born in the 1970s out of a concern that the potential from emerging technology would be lost if we didn’t embrace innovation.

I don’t know what she means. Does anyone else?

Studies I’m aware of more generally see data protection law arising, from the 1960s through to the early 1980s, out of a combination of: increasing awareness of and focus on fundamental human rights; an understanding that use of computers would cause an exponential increase in the ability to process information; a desire that concerns about the preceding two should not lead to unnecessary barriers to international trade.

(See, for example, the UK 1972 Report of the Committee on Privacy, chaired by Kenneth Younger, and the UK 1978 Report of the Committee on Data Protection chaired by Sir Norman Lindop. See, especially, the 1980 OECD Guidelines and the 1981 Council of Europe Convention 108.)

Whatever Ms Denham’s words mean, they miss the foundational status of human rights in modern data protection law. And that is a glaring omission. Article 1 of the UKGDPR is clear – data protection law now, as it always has

protects fundamental rights and freedoms of natural persons and in particular their right to the protection of personal data

There’s nothing wrong with embracing innovation (I do it myself). But let’s not misstate history.

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Windrush and data protection

As far as I know the Information Commissioner has never investigated this issue (I’ve made an FOI request to find out more), but this, on the Mishcon site, is an overview of the key issue.

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If ICO won’t regulate the law, it must reboot itself

The exercise of the right of (subject) access under Article 15 of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is the exercise of a fundamental right to be aware of and verify the lawfulness of the processing of personal data about oneself.

That this is a fundamental right is emphasised by the range of enforcement powers available to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), against those controllers who fail to comply with their obligations in response to an access request. These include the power to serve administrative fines to a maximum amount of €20m, but, more prosaically, the power to order the controller to comply with the data subject’s requests to exercise his or her rights. This, surely, is a basic function of the ICO – the sort of regulatory action which underlines its existence. This, much more than operating regulatory sandboxes, or publishing normative policy papers, is surely what the ICO is fundamentally there to do.

Yet read this, a letter shown to me recently which was sent by ICO to someone complaining about the handling of an access request:

 

Dear [data subject],

Further to my recent correspondence, I write regarding the way in which [a London Borough] (The Council) has handled your subject access request.

I have contacted the Council and from the evidence they have provided to me, as stated before, it appears that they have infringed your right to access under the GDPR by failing to comply with your SAR request. However, it does not appear as though they are willing to provide you with any further information and we have informed them of our dissatisfaction with this situation.

It is a requirement under the Data protection Act 2018 that we investigate cases to the ‘extent appropriate’ and after lengthy correspondence with the Council, it appears they are no longer willing co-operate with us to provide this information. Therefore, you may have better results if you seek independent legal advice regarding the matters raised in this particular case.

Here we have the ICO telling a data subject that it will not take action against a public authority data controller which has infringed her rights by failing to comply with an access request. Instead, the requester must seek her own legal advice (almost inevitably at her own significant cost).

Other controllers might look at this and wonder whether they should bother complying with the law, if no sanction arises for failing to do so. And other data subjects might look at it and wonder what is the point in exercising their rights, if the regulator will not enforce them.

This is the most stark single example in a collection of increasing evidence that the ICO is failing to perform its basic tasks of regulation and enforcement.

It is just one data subject, exercising her right. But it is a right which underpins data protection law: if you don’t know and can’t find out what information an organisation has about you, then your ability to exercise other rights is stopped short.

The ICO should reboot itself. It should, before and above all else, perform its first statutory duty – to monitor and enforce the application of the GDPR.

I don’t understand why it does not want to do so.

[P.S. I think the situation described here is different, although of the same species, to situations where ICO finds likely non-compliance but declines to take punitive action – such as a monetary penalty. Here, there is a simple corrective regulatory power available – an enforcement notice (essentially a “steps order”) under section 148 Data Protection Act 2018.]

The views in this post (and indeed most 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 wheels of the Ministry of Justice

do they turn so slowly that they’ll lead to the Lord Chancellor committing a criminal offence?

On 21 December last year, as we were all sweeping up the mince piece crumbs, removing our party hats and switching off the office lights for another year, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) published, with no accompanying publicity whatsoever, an enforcement notice served on the Secretary of State for Justice. The notice drew attention to the fact that in July 2017 the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) had had a backlog of 919 subject access requests from individuals, some of which dated back to 2012. And by November 2017 that had barely improved – to 793 cases dating back to 2014.

I intended to blog about this at the time, but it’s taken me around nine months to retrieve my chin from the floor, such was the force with which it dropped.

Because we should remember that the exercise of the right of subject access is a fundamental aspect of the fundamental right to protection of personal data. Requesting access to one’s data enables one to be aware of, and verify the lawfulness of, the processing. Don’t take my word for it – look at recital 41 of the-then applicable European data protection directive, and recital 63 of the now-applicable General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

And bear in mind that the nature of the MoJ’s work means it often receives subject access requests from prisoners, or others who are going through or have been through the criminal justice system. I imagine that a good many of these horrendously delayed requests were from people with a genuinely-held concern, or grievance, and not just from irritants like me who are interested in data controllers’ compliance.

The notice required MoJ to comply with all the outstanding requests by 31 October 2018. Now, you might raise an eyebrow at the fact that this gave the MoJ an extra eight months to respond to requests which were already incredibly late and which should have been responded to within forty days, but what’s an extra 284 days when things have slipped a little? (*Pseuds’ corner alert* It reminds me of Larkin’s line in The Whitsun Weddings about being so late that he feels: “all sense of being in a hurry gone”).

Maybe one reason the ICO gave MoJ so long to sort things out is that enforcement notices are serious things – a failure to comply is, after all, a criminal offence punishable on indictment by an unlimited fine. So one notes with interest a recent response to a freedom of information request for the regular updates which the notice also required MoJ to provide.

This reveals that by July this year MoJ had whittled down those 793 delayed cases to 285, with none dating back further than 2016. But I’m not going to start hanging out the bunting just yet, because a) more recent cases might well be more complex (because the issues behind them will be likely to be more current, and therefore potentially more complex, and b) because they don’t flaming well deserve any bunting because this was, and remains one of the most egregious and serious compliance failures it’s been my displeasure to have seen.

And what if they don’t clear them all by 31 October? The notice gives no leeway, no get-out – if any of those requests extant at November last year remains unanswered by November this year, the Right Honourable David Gauke MP (the current incumbent of the position of Secretary of State for Justice) will, it appears, have committed a criminal offence.

Will he be prosecuted?

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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Filed under access to information, Data Protection, Directive 95/46/EC, GDPR, human rights, Information Commissioner, Ministry of Justice, Uncategorized

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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Data Protection (and other) compensation awarded against Ombudsman

I’ve been helpfully referred to a rather remarkable judgment of the Leeds County Court, in a claim for damages against the Local Government Ombudsman for, variously, declaratory relief and damages arising from discrimination under the Equality Act 2010, and breach of the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA). The claim was resoundingly successful, and led to a total award of £12,500, £2,500 of which were aggravated damages because of the conduct of the trial by the respondent.

The judgment has been uploaded to Dropbox here.

I will leave readers to draw their own conclusions about the actions of the Ombudsman, but it’s worth noting, when one reads the trenchant criticism by District Judge Geddes, that one of the office’s strategic objectives is to

deliver effective redress through impartial, rigorous and proportionate investigations

One can only conclude that, in this case at least, this objective was very far from met.

Of particular relevance for this blog, though, was the award of £2500 for distress arising from failure to prepare and keep an accurate case file recording the disability of the claimant and her daughter. This, held the District Judge, was a contravention of the Ombudsman’s obligations under the DPA. As is now relatively well known, the DPA’s original drafting precluded compensation for distress alone (in the absence of tangible – e.g. financial – damage), but the Court of Appeal, in Vidal Hall & ors v Google ([2015] EWCA Civ 311), held that this was contrary to the provisions of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union and that, accordingly, there was a right under the DPA to claim compensation for “pure” distress. The award in question here was of “Vidal Hall” compensation, with the judge saying there was

no doubt in my mind that the data breaches have caused distress to the claimant in their own rights as well as as a result of the consequences that flowed.

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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Anti-EU campaign database – in contravention of data protection laws?

The politics.co.uk site reports that an anti-EU umbrella campaign called Leave.EU (or is it theknow.eu?) has been written to by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) after allegedly sending unsolicited emails to people who appear to have been “signed up” by friends or family. The campaign’s bank-roller, UKIP donor Aaron Banks, reportedly said

We have 70,000 people registered and people have been asked to supply 10 emails of friends or family to build out (sic) database

Emails sent to those signed up in this way are highly likely to have been sent in breach of the campaign’s obligations under the Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003 (PECR), and the ICO is reported to have to written to the campaign to

inform them of their obligations under the PECR and to ask them to suppress [the recipient’s] email address from their databases

But is this really the main concern here? Or, rather, should we (and the ICO) be asking what on earth is a political campaign doing building a huge database of people, and identifying them as (potential) supporters without their knowledge? Such concerns go to the very heart of modern privacy and data protection law.

Data protection law’s genesis lie, in part, in the desire, post-war, of European nations to ensure “a foundation of justice and peace in the world”, as the preamble to the European Convention on Human Rights states. The first recital to the European Community Data Protection Directive of 1995 makes clear that the importance of those fundamental rights to data protection law.

The Directive is, of course, given domestic effect by the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA). Section 2 of the same states that information as to someone’s political beliefs is her personal data: I would submit that presence on a database purporting to show that someone supports the UK”s withdrawal from the European Union is also her personal data. Placing someone on that database, without her knowledge or ability to object, will be manifestly “unfair” when it comes to compliance with the first data protection principle. It may also be inaccurate, when it comes to compliance with the fourth principle.

I would urge the ICO to look much more closely at this – the compiling of (query inaccurate) of secret databases of people’s political opinions has very scary antecedents.

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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Naming and shaming the innocent

Around this time last year I wrote two blog posts about two separate police forces’ decision to tweet the names of drivers charged (but not – yet, at least – convicted) of drink driving offences. In the latter example Staffordshire police were actually using a hashtag #drinkdriversnamedontwitter, and I argued that

If someone has merely been charged with an offence, it is contrary to the ancient and fundamental presumption of innocence to shame them for that fact. Indeed, I struggle to understand how it doesn’t constitute contempt of court to do so, or to suggest that someone who has not been convicted of drink-driving is a drink driver. Being charged with an offence does not inevitably lead to conviction. I haven’t been able to find statistics relating to drink-driving acquittals, but in 2010 16% of all defendants dealt with by magistrates’ courts were either acquitted or not proceeded against

The Information Commissioner’s Office investigated whether there had been a breach of the first principle of Schedule One of the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA), which requires that processing of personal data be “fair and lawful”, but decided to take no action after Staffs police agreed not to use the hashtag again, saying

Our concern was that naming people who have only been charged alongside the label ‘drink-driver’ strongly implies a presumption of guilt for the offence. We have received reassurances from Staffordshire Police the hashtag will no longer be used in this way and are happy with the procedures they have in place. As a result, we will be taking no further action.

But my first blog post had raised questions about whether the mere naming of those charged was in accordance with the same DPA principle. Newspaper articles talked of naming and “shaming”, but where is the shame in being charged with an offence? I wondered why Sussex police didn’t correct those newspapers who attributed the phrase to them.

And this year, Sussex police, as well as neighbouring Surrey, and Somerset and Avon are doing the same thing: naming drivers charged with drink driving offences on twitter or elsewhere online. The media happily describe this as a “naming and shaming” tactic, and I have not seen the police disabusing them, although Sussex police did at least enter into a dialogue with me and others on twitter, in which they assured us that their actions were in pursuit of open justice, and that they were not intending to shame people. However, this doesn’t appear to tally with the understanding of the Sussex Police and Crime Commissioner who said earlier this year

I am keen to find out if the naming and shaming tactic that Sussex Police has adopted is actually working

But I also continue to question whether the practice is in accordance with police forces’ obligations under the DPA. Information relating to the commission or alleged commission by a person of an offence is that person’s sensitive personal data, and for processing to be fair and lawful a condition in both of Schedule Two and, particularly, Schedule Three must be met. And I struggle to see which Schedule Three condition applies – the closest is probably

The processing is necessary…for the administration of justice
But “necessary”, in the DPA, imports a proportionality test of the kind required by human rights jurisprudence. The High Court, in the MPs’ expenses case cited the European Court of Human Rights, in The Sunday Times v United Kingdom (1979) 2 EHRR 245  to the effect that

while the adjective “necessary”, within the meaning of article 10(2) [of the European Convention on Human Rights] is not synonymous with “indispensable”, neither has it the flexibility of such expressions as “admissible”, “ordinary”, “useful”, “reasonable” or “desirable” and that it implies the existence of a “pressing social need.”
and went on to hold, therefore that “necessary” in the DPA

should reflect the meaning attributed to it by the European Court of Human Rights when justifying an interference with a recognised right, namely that there should be a pressing social need and that the interference was both proportionate as to means and fairly balanced as to ends
So is there a pressing social need to interfere with the rights of people charged with (and not convicted of) an offence, in circumstances where the media and others portray the charge as a source of shame? Is it proportionate and fairly balanced to do so? One consideration might be whether the same police forces name all people charged with an offence. If the intent is to promote open justice, then it is difficult to see why one charging decision should merit online naming, and others not.But is the intent really to promote open justice? Or is it to dissuade others from drink-driving? Supt Richard Corrigan of Avon and Somerset police says

This is another tool in our campaign to stop people driving while under the influence of drink or drugs. If just one person is persuaded not to take to the road as a result, then it is worthwhile as far as we are concerned.

and Sussex police’s Chief Inspector Natalie Moloney says

I hope identifying all those who are to appear in court because of drink or drug driving will act as a deterrent and make Sussex safer for all road users

which firstly fails to use the word “alleged” before “drink or drug driving”, and secondly – as Supt Corrigan – suggests the purpose of naming is not to promote open justice, but rather to deter drink drivers.

Deterring drink driving is certainly a worthy public aim (and I stress that I have no sympathy whatsoever with those convicted of such offences) but should the sensitive personal data of who have not been convicted of any offence be used to their detriment in pursuance of that aim?

I worry that unless such naming practices are scrutinised, and challenged when they are unlawful and unfair, the practice will spread, and social “shame” will be encouraged to be visited on the innocent. I hope the Information Commissioner investigates.

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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