Tag Archives: FOI

The Seepage of Information Act

Transport yourself back to January 2020 (what a different world that was). You are a journalist, or maybe just an informed citizen, and you want to know what preparations the government had made in the event Boris Johnson had lost his seat in the general election a month previously.

You make a request for this information to the Cabinet Office under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA). You know that you should get a response within twenty working days (section 10 of FOIA says so). And you know that there is a regulator (the Information Commissioner, or “ICO”) who oversees compliance with FOIA.

What you probably don’t expect is that, 25 months on, you not only haven’t received the information you requested but you have only just had a ruling from the ICO that you are not entitled to it.

That’s how long it has taken this request to make its way through what is an unacceptably slow process. The requester made the request to the Cabinet Office on 7 January 2020. By 12 March 2020 they had had no response whatsoever, so complained to ICO. Three months later, on 16 June 2020, ICO formally told the Cabinet Office to pull its finger out. On 3 August it did, and refused to disclose the requested information, citing one of the statutory exemptions. On 22 September 2020 the requester again complained to ICO, who then took sixteen months to decide that the Cabinet Office was entitled to rely on the exemption claimed.

What follows is far from a fully thought-out legal argument, but bear with me for the purposes of polemic: Article 10 of European Convention on Human Rights says that everyone has the qualified right to receive information (as well as to impart information) without interference by public authority. Previous attempts to argue that Article 10 confers something above and beyond FOIA in respect of accessing information from public authorities have foundered, on the grounds that, in context, Article 10 doesn’t add anything to the rights in FOIA (see Kennedy, para 92 and elsewhere). But it does seem to me that if the regulatory scheme itself interposes a delay which might be, as here, 1600% longer than the original statutory timescale given to the original recipient for responding to the request, the basis might arise for mounting an argument that the scheme fails to avoid public authority interference in the Article 10 fundamental right.

Maybe I’m overreaching. Let’s just say this: it cannot be right that it takes over two years to get a response and a regulatory decision on a FOIA request. Let’s hope new Commissioner John Edwards sorts this out.

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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Reporter uses FOI to lift anonymity order

Here’s a remarkable example of good use of Freedom of Information (FOI) law. Tanya Fowles, a reporter covering courts in Northern Ireland, has successfully applied to lift a reporting restriction order, originally made in the magistrates’ court, which prevented her naming a person convicted of causing a child to engage in sexual activity.

The court appears to have imposed the original order because of a perceived risk to the defendant’s safety, based on evidence given by a police officer, who is reported to have told the court that

It’s a small, rural community. The family would be well-known. I think he would be easily identified. I know of incidents recently where paedophile hunters have gone to houses and attacked individuals. I am aware that is prevalent within the area, or certainly was last year. They have turned up at houses and one was arrested for assault. After that there was a bit of a lull, but I believe they are still active in the area.

However, Fowles then made an FOI request to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, which revealed that, far from such incidents being prevalent, police had only attended seven incidents in the entire County Armagh area during 2019/20, resulting in a single report of assault but zero prosecutions. This evidence was accepted in the county court (to which the case had been transferred) and the reporting restriction order was lifted.

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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ICO fails at FOI

I won’t rehearse the points I made in previous posts. Enough to say this – the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), in addition to being tasked with regulating Freedom of Information (FOI) law, must also comply with it, and anecdotal evidence suggested a long-standing failure to do so adequately (prior to, as well as during the COVID pandemic). That being the case – to whom should other public authorities look for exemplary guidance? Or put even more shortly – why should public authorities bother with compliance?

I now have some statistics.

I asked the ICO, under FOI, how many FOI cases it had failed to respond to within three months of their receipt (bear in mind that one month is the statutory limit). They have now told me that in 92 cases in the past year they have failed to respond to an FOI request within three months. Some cases are still open – in one, they have failed to reply to a request for 951 days and counting (I don’t know, and am almost beyond caring, whether these are calendar days or working days – it barely matters any more), and five cases are over a year old and still unanswered.

As I said previously, the ICO says that FOI 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…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”.

A clearer case for (self-)enforcement action could scarcely be imagined.

Outgoing Commissioner Elizabeth Denham is handing her successor John Edwards a severe problem, both in terms of compliance but also – crucially – in terms of reputation of the office.

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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“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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What John Edwards will inherit

The new Information Commissioner will have a lot on his plate. I’m going to focus very briefly on what is, objectively, a very small matter but which, to me, illustrates much about priorities within the ICO.

On 29 July I happened to notice an Information Tribunal decision which I thought was slightly odd, in that apparently both the Tribunal, and the Commissioner beforehand, had dealt with it under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 rather than the Environmental Information Regulations 2004, despite the subject matter (a tree inspection report) appearing to fall squarely under the latter’s ambit.

However, the decision notice appealed (referred to as FS5081345 in the Tribunal judgment), does not appear on the ICO’s searchable online database (in fact, no decisions relating to the public authority – the mighty Great Wyrley Parish Council – are listed). It’s unusual but certainly not unheard of for decision notices not to get uploaded (either by overlook, or – occasionally – for other, legal reasons) but in the past when I’ve asked for one of these, informally, it’s been provided by return.

So I used the ICO’s online Chat function to ask for a copy of the decision notice. However, I was told I had to submit a request in writing (of course I’d already done so – the Chat function is in writing, after all, but let’s not quibble). I said I was concerned that what was a simple request would get sucked up into the ICO’s own FOI processes, but the person on the Chat thought I would get a response within a couple of days.

Those who’ve stayed this far into the blogpost will be unsurprised to hear what happened next – my simple request got sucked into the ICO’s own FOI processes, and more than seven weeks on (more than three weeks beyond the statutory timescale for responding) I have still had no response, and no indication of why not, other than the pressure the FOI team is under.

And that last point is key: if the ICO’s own FOI caseworkers are under such pressure that they cannot deal with a very simple request within the legal timescale, nor update me in any meaningful way as to why, something has surely gone wrong.

At a recent NADPO webinar Dr Neil Bhatia spoke about his own difficulties with getting information out of the ICO through FOI. He (and I) were challenged by one of the other speakers on why we didn’t more regularly take formal action to force the issue. It was a fair point, and prompted me yesterday to ask the ICO for a formal decision under section 50 of the FOI Act (which means the ICO will have to issue an FOI decision notice on whether the ICO handled an FOI request for an FOI request in accordance with the law – and that sentence itself illustrates the ridiculousness of the situation).

This isn’t the only FOI request I have that the ICO is late responding to. I have one going back to May this year and another to June (albeit on rather more complex subjects). And I know that I and Dr Bhatia are not alone.

All the fine talk from the current Commissioner about forging international data protection accords, and encouraging “data driven innovation” can’t prevent a perception that her office seems increasingly to have left FOI regulation (and in some cases its own FOI compliance) behind. The right to access information is (part of) a fundamental right (just as is the right to data protection). If the ICO doesn’t want the role, is it time for a separate FOI Commissioner?

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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ICO ignores its own FOI investigators

In the past I recall a few cases where the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) had to adjudicate on its own compliance with the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA). As a public authority, the ICO must comply with FOIA in the same way that all other public authorities must (fundamentally, by responding to a request within twenty working days). In a few cases, the ICO’s investigation of itself would even be slightly critical (along the lines of “you could have handled this a bit better”). But I have never, until now, seen a case like this one.

Extraordinarily, here we have a decision in which we see the ICO (as “the Commissioner”) berating itself (as “the ICO”) for…failing to reply to its own investigators. The notice gives the details:

On 18 May 2021, the complainant wrote to the ICO…and requested information…

The ICO acknowledged the request for information on 19 May 2021…

To date, a substantive response has not been issued…

The complainant contacted the Commissioner on 19 June 2021 to complain about the failure by the ICO to respond to his request…

On 5 July 2021, the Commissioner wrote to the ICO, reminding it of its responsibilities and asking it to provide a substantive response to the complainant within 10 working days…

Despite this intervention the ICO has failed to respond to the complainant.

As the notice says (indeed, as all such notices say), failure to comply may now result in the ICO making written certification of this fact to the High Court pursuant to section 54 of the Act and may be dealt with as a contempt of court. How on earth would this work though? As a matter of law, could a regulator certify its own non-compliance to the High Court in this way?

What a bizarre situation.

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FOI – there’s no (jurisdictional) limits

Practitioners tend to have a few mantras about the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA). Some of those mantras admit of exceptions (“it’s requester and motive blind” may, for instance, fall away where the wider context of the request needs to be considered in “vexatious” cases) but the mantra that “anyone, anywhere can make a request” had never been seriously challenged, until recently.

In conjoined cases, the First tier Tribunal – apparently, one understands, of its own volition – had raised an issue as to whether FOIA did indeed have extra-territorial application – contrary to the standard approach to statutory construction whereby UK legislation applies only to those who are citizens of the UK, or on its territory – such that requests could be made by anyone, anywhere in the world.

If the Tribunal had decided that the standard approach applied, and no extra-territorial effect was in place, there would have been a significant diminution of rights, and a consequent diminution in the accountability of public authorities. More practically, we would have no doubt seen, at least from some public authorities, identity verification measures being directed at requesters.

Thankfully, the Tribunal decided that there was extra-territorial effect, in a decision handed down orally on 27 January (with written reasons to follow).

There are posts about the case(s) on both Cornerstone Barristers’ and Doughty Street’s websites.

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Met – FOI requester’s focus on police misconduct was a “vexatiousness” factor

I regularly criticise the Information Commissioner’s Office on this blog. But credit where it’s due. They have upheld a complaint about the Met Police’s handling of a Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) request, in which the Met, remarkably, had argued that the request for information about police officers stopping people without cause and asking for their ID was vexatious (per section 14(1) of FOIA).

Clearly, there was some history to the request and the requester, and in line with authority, the Met were entitled to take this into account at arriving at their (now overturned) decision. But, as the decision notice points out, one of the factors which they said pointed towards vexatiousness was this:

Complainant’s focus upon police misconduct and/or related issues

I’ll say that again

Complainant’s focus upon police misconduct and/or related issues

Yes, the Met did indeed argue that a focus by a FOIA requester on police misconduct was a factor which led them to believe there was a pattern of behaviour which made this request (about stopping people without cause and asking for their ID) vexatious.

So well done ICO for dismissing that argument.

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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Upper Tribunal on enforcement of First-tier Tribunal FOIA decisions

What happens if a public authority does not comply with steps specified in a decision notice issued by the Information Commissioner under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA)? Assuming that no appeal is brought by the authority, then section 54 of FOIA provides that, in such circumstances, the Commissioner may (not “must” – this is a power, not a duty) certify in writing to the High Court (or, in Scotland, the Court of Session) that the authority has failed to comply with that notice, and the court may (after inquiring into the matter) deal with the authority as if it had committed a contempt of court.

This much is, relatively, straightforward, but what happens if the Commissioner’s decision notice doesn’t specify steps the public authority should take – for instance (and most normally) where the Commissioner doesn’t uphold a complaint by the requester, and the latter appeals to the First-tier Tribunal (FTT), with the FTT subsequently upholding the appeal,  substituting its own decision for that of the Commissioner, and itself specifying steps to be taken by the public authority? In those circumstances, who is responsible for (or at least has the power of) enforcement of those steps? Is it the Commissioner, or the FTT itself?

This is not a hypothetical question – the FTT will frequently disagree with the Commissioner – sometimes, of course upholding an appeal by the public authority, but at other times upholding a requester’s appeal, and ordering the public authority to take steps which were not originally specified by the Commissioner. 

The answer, says the Upper Tribunal, in Information Commissioner v Moss and the Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames [2020] UKUT 174 (AAC), is that it is for the FTT to enforce, on the (slightly circular sounding) grounds that it has the power to do so, and the Commissioner doesn’t.

The FTT’s power to enforce emanates from paragraph 61(4) of FOIA, which provides that where a person fails to do something, in relation to proceedings before the FTT on an appeal, and if those proceedings were (instead) proceedings before a court which had a power to commit for contempt, and the failure would constitute contempt (such as failing to comply with steps in a substituted decision) the FTT may certify the offence to the Upper Tribunal (in Moss, which related to matters before section 61 was amended by the Data Protection Act 2018, the power was to certify to the High Court, but nothing turns on this).

By contrast, for the Commissioner to control the enforcement of the FTT’s decision would be to offend the “fundamental constitutional principle” as enunciated by Lord Neuberger (in R (Evans) v Attorney General [2015] AC 1787 – also a FOIA case, of course) that “a decision of a court is binding as between the parties, and cannot be ignored or set aside by anyone” (including, one might add, by the Commissioner, upon exercise of her power (not, remember, her duty) to enforce her own decisions by certifying to the High Court).

In Moss Upper Tribunal Judge Jacobs did not have to decide who is responsible for enforcing a decision notice if the FTT dismisses an appeal against it (i.e. where the Commissioner’s original decision, and any specified and required steps are unchanged). He merely noted that “there is authority that, even if an appeal against a decision is dismissed, it thereafter derives its authority from the tribunal’s decision” (which to me, looks like strong obiter indication that he would have, if required to do so, found that the FTT, and not the Commissioner, would also have the enforcement power in those circumstances).

I can recall (purely anecdotally) occasions where successful appellants to the FTT have bemoaned subsequent failure by public authorities promptly to take the steps specified by the FTT in its decision. The position now seems clear – if those steps need enforcement to make them happen, it is to the FTT that the aggrieved requester should turn.

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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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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