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Hi Moderator...  thanks for your post.  I'm sure that there will be plenty of fires being conveniently lit within certain forces - purely in the interest of clearing out all that 'irrelevant stuff' that they no longer need, of course...   As for your comment regrading Jack....


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Criminals Abusing Freedom

of Information Act

The Home Office has reported that convicted criminals have been making requests under the Freedom of Information Act, in an attempt to identify informants who helped to jail them.

They are also seeking details on how the authorities caught them. The criminals have used aliases or friends and family to make the requests to try to disguise the real reason why they want information to be released.

The type of information requested has included details on undercover police operations, forensic science techniques used to recover DNA and steps used to finally trace and apprehend criminals. Police suspect that more than 100 convicted criminals have requested information from public bodies including the Home Office, and this could present a risk to informants if their identities are released. Police also believe that criminals may be trying to learn from their mistakes to prevent being caught in the future.

Under the Act, public bodies are not allowed to release information that could be deemed sensitive, such as data relating to police informants and criminal investigations (past and present). These requests should therefore be identified at an early stage so that the information is not passed on to the person requesting it.

For information on the Home Office’s Freedom of Information scheme go to

http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/about-us/freedom-of-information/

 

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Freedom of Information and the Public Interest Test

This document was jointly produced by Dundas & Wilson - http://www.dundas-wilson.com/ and the JISC Legal Information Service.

Note
The document is one of a series which attempts to illustrate how certain matters relevant to Further and Higher Education are likely to be treated under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 (“FOISA”). Although the information is principally aimed at Scottish institutions some of the information will be of interest to institutions UK wide.

The document summarises the current thinking surrounding the application of the FOISA in relation to the exemptions that are available to public authorities (referred to as institutions in the note). Specifically the note sets out some of the factors which should be considered when applying the public interest test.

A Microsoft Word version of this document which may be suitable for printing is availble by linking here - http://www.jisclegal.ac.uk/pdfs/FOI_PublicInterestDundasWilson.doc

The document is provided as information only. It should not be relied upon solely. It is advised that where necessary you should seek professional legal advice from a law firm.

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
    1.1 Freedom of Information - General

    1.2 Rights of Access
    1.3 Exemptions
  2. The Public Interest Test - General
    2.1 The public interest analysis
    2.2 The concept of public interest
    2.3 Relevant factors
    2.4 Challenges
  3. Summary
  4. Further reading and guidance

1. Introduction  

Freedom of Information legislation is of great importance to the Further and Higher Education Sector as both providers and purchasers of services. This note will focus on the interaction between Freedom of Information and the use of the public interest test in claiming exemptions when a request for information is received.

1.1 Freedom of Information - General

There are two pieces of legislation which implement the Freedom of Information regime in the United Kingdom - the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (“FOI”) and the Freedom of Information ( Scotland ) Act 2002 (“FOISA”). For the purposes of this note, we will concentrate of the provisions of the Scottish statute.

From the 1st of January 2005 any person who makes a request for such information from a public authority must be provided with that information, subject to certain conditions summarised below. The legal right of access includes all types of “recorded” information of any date held by Scottish public authorities no matter when it was created or received.

The Scottish Information Commissioner is an independent public official appointed to enforce and promote the FOISA.

The FOISA applies to all Scottish public authorities including the Scottish Executive and its agencies, the Scottish Parliament, Local Authorities, Universities and Scottish Further Education colleges (in this note, collectively “Institutions”).

1.2 Rights of Access

Section 1 of the FOISA establishes the right of access for individuals and corporate entities to;

  • All information;
  • Held by or on behalf of an Institution;
  • No matter when it is generated or received by that Institution; but
  • Subject to certain exemptions.

To exercise the right of access, the access request must be made to the Institution in writing or some other permanent form (e-mail is acceptable in most instances). There is no need for the request to explicitly mention Freedom of Information legislation. However, the information requested must be described.

The Institution must respond to such a request within 20 working days. Whilst FOISA does not apply to “private” companies it does apply to information about private companies held by an Institution, including information provided by a private company to the Institution. So for example, and subject to any relevant exemptions, information in a Tender received by an Institution may well be subject to disclosure under the FOISA requirements. Such disclosure would be made only after any relevant exemptions had been applied.

Back to top

1.3 Exemptions

The FOISA creates a general and broad right of access to information held by an Institution. However, there are exemptions available to the Institution under FOISA. Note that the exemptions available under FOISA are slightly different from FOI exemptions.

These exemptions are classified into: (i) absolute exemptions; and (ii) qualified exemptions.

The absolute exemptions are set out in Section 25 (Information otherwise accessible), Section 26 (Prohibitions on disclosure), Section 36(2) (Confidentiality), Section 37 (Court Records) and parts of Section 38(1) (Personal Information).

The public interest test does not apply to such absolute exemptions and as such they are not further discussed in this note. All other exemptions set out in the FOISA are categorised as qualified exemptions.

Crucially, an Institution can only take advantage of such a qualified exemption (in order to refuse/restrict a requested disclosure) after it applies the public interest test.

Note also that the exemption for confidentiality is subject to an inherent public interest test.

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  2. The Public Interest Test - General

The public interest test is set out in section 2(b) of the FOISA:-

“To information which is exempt information by virtue of any provision of Part 2, section 1 (the right to information) applies only to the extent that-

(a) The provision does not confer an absolute exemption; and

(b) In all the circumstances of the case, the public interest in disclosing the information is not outweighed by that in maintaining the exemption.”

Applying the public interest test requires a balancing of competing interests, i.e. the general public interest in disclosure and the public interest in maintaining the exemption. There is a presumption that information should be disclosed unless the harm likely to arise from disclosure would outweigh the public interest in making the information available.

It is necessary for the Institution to consider whether any harm or unfairness arising from disclosure is outweighed by the public interest in making the information available.

There is limited guidance available on the use of the test (see below).

The current Scottish Information Commissioner has made it clear that he is likely to scrutinise carefully any claimed exemption under a qualified exemption, i.e. where the Institution has applied the public interest test and subsequently refused to release the requested information. At a practical level any Institution seeking to rely on a qualified exemption must genuinely and reasonably perform the required public interest analysis, and equally importantly maintain a record (an audit trail) of that analysis.

2.1 The public interest analysis

There is some existing limited guidance to establish how the analysis should be carried out from the House of Lords when they initially considered the FOI. For example, at the Committee Stage in the House of Lords, Lord Falconer stated;

“As far as public interest between disclosure on the other hand and the maintenance of the exemption on the other is concerned, it has to be looked at objectively. One looks at the impact of disclosure, that is, making it public. What is the impact of the exemption being maintained? That should be looked at objectively rather than in terms of whatever the motive may be of the person applying.”

An Institution should have a procedure in place to objectively evaluate the request, but each decision should be made on its own merits taking into account the different factors which may influence the decision, for example the age of the information.

2.2 The concept of public interest

The concept of the public interest is deliberately flexible. It may include:

  • promoting public debate of issues of the day;
  • promoting accountability in decision-making on public expenditure;
  • allowing individuals to understand decisions and, in some cases, assisting individuals in challenging these decisions; and
  • bringing to light information affecting public safety.
2.3 Relevant factors

Based on guidance information and other publications, relevant factors that should be considered by an Institution include: -

  • the general public interest in accessible information;
  • would disclosure contribute to the administration of justice or enforcement of law?;
  • would disclosure inform the public of any danger to public health or safety?;
  • would disclosure contribute to a debate of importance?; and
  • would disclosure prejudice a person's privacy rights?

Factors which should NOT be taken into account by an Institution include: -

  • the possible embarrassment of Institutions or other officials;
  • the possible loss of confidence in Institutions or public authority;
  • the seniority of persons involved; and
  • the risk of an applicant misinterpreting the information.
2.4 Challenges

It is always possible that an Institution's application of the public interest test may be investigated. If an Institution refuses a request for information, then the person requesting the information has the right to appeal to the Scottish Information Commissioner. The Scottish Information Commissioner may then investigate the Institution's actions. The Commissioner has the power to order an Institution to disclose the information if the Commissioner believes that the authority has acted wrongly in refusing a request.

Institutions should be prepared for any such challenge and must ensure that their publication schemes are adhered to and that any public interest decision is accompanied by a clear audit trail of the decision making process. Bearing in mind the statutory timescales involved in responding to a request (twenty working days), Institutions should ensure that procedures and guidelines are in place to enable requests to be responded to quickly and with the relevant audit trail in place.

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3. Summary

There are some basic steps that an Institution needs to undertake when it receives a request for information. These include asking:-

  1. Does the Institution hold any information to which the request relates?;
  2. Can any exemptions be claimed by the authority?;
  3. Does the public interest test apply to that exemption? If so, the Institution should apply the public interest test as outlined in 2.1 above and carefully document how its decision was reached
  4. Remember that what is of interest to the public is not necessarily in the public interest
  5. If after applying the public interest test the Institution decides that the public interest in disclosing the information is outweighed by the public interest in maintaining the exemption, then it should inform the party that requested the information of its decision in writing within the 20 day limit giving reasons for the decision. Otherwise it should release the requested information.

The concept of the public interest is crucial to the concept of Freedom of Information. Whilst the lack of a statutory definition of the concept is unfortunate, it is clear that it does oblige an institution to weigh competing interests in each case. At its simplest, something which is in the public interest serves the interests of the public whatever interest that may be. In deciding whether or not to disclose information the Institution must decide whether or not it is in the public interest to disclose or withhold information.

In applying the test therefore, an Institution must;

  • Keep audit trails of the decision-making to ensure that a robust defence can be mounted if a complaint is made; and
  • Try to develop a clear policy approach in relation to the implementation of the public interest test as requests are received. This may include the development of a written policy for use when the public interest test arises. Some guidance can be found in “Freedom of Information Act Awareness Guidance No 3” noted in the further reading and guidance section.

Equally, Institutions should not;

  • Use the excuse that something is complicated or difficult to understand as a way of withholding information; or
  • Forget to consider other legislation that may apply (for example the Data Protection Act 1998 and the Human Rights Act).

Back to top

4. Further reading and guidance

The UK Information Commissioner has produced an Awareness Guidance document called “Freedom of Information Act 2000 - Awareness Guidance No 3” available on the UK Information Commissioner website at - http://www.informationcommissioner.gov.uk

Balancing the Public Interest: Applying the public interest test to exemptions in the UK Freedom of Information Act 2000 by Meredith Cook, August 2003, published by the UK Constitution Unit and available at - http://www.ucl.ac.uk/consitution-unit/publications/index.php

_____________________________

This Note - Freedom of Information and the Public Interest Test - was jointly produced by Dundas & Wilson - http://www.dundas-wilson.com/

and the JISC Legal Information Service - http://www.jisclegal.ac.uk/

Dundas & Wilson is a UK law firm ( http://www.dundas-wilson.com/ ).

If you want to contact D&W in relation to Freedom of Information work please e-mail - foi@dundas-wilson.com .

JISC Legal provides a monthly news, updates and events digest which is available via our JISCmail list - JISC-LEGAL-NEWS.
Information and subscription details are available on our website at - http://www.jisclegal.ac.uk/jiscmail_subscribe.html

The document is provided as information only. It should not be relied upon solely. It is advised that where necessary you should seek professional legal advice from a law firm.


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Freedom of Information Act Requests

The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) Central Referral Process Unit (CRPU) has published its latest position paper on requests under the Freedom of Information Act to UK police forces, covering the period 01/07/05 to 30/09/05.

Analysis of the figures shows that:

  •  4,758 requests were received by police forces during the period 01/07/05 to 30/09/05.
  • Of the 4,758 requests, 12.9% were Subject Access Requests under the Data Protection Act.
  • Requests are becoming more focused on sensitive issues and are taking longer to research and answer.
  • Requests from internal staff have dropped dramatically.
  • The Police Federation and Unison have started to make requests under the Act.
  • Nationally requests from media bodies accounted for a quarter of requests.
  • The number of requests purely to Scottish forces from the media accounted for nearly two thirds of the requests.
  • The number of requests to police forces that cross over into central government has increased.

The trend of requestors placing a request with one force and awaiting the answer before then making the same request to other forces and using the first response as a precedent is continuing, particularly from media organisations.

Following the London bombings in July, a considerable number of requests were generated, in particular in respect of anti-terrorist operations and action plans. These requests were made to several police forces nationally and due to the central referral process were able to be dealt with in a unified way agreed by ACPO.

 

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

 

ACPO FREEDOM OF INFORMATION MANUAL

 

 

http://www.acpo.police.uk/asp/policies/Data/Public%20Facing%20Version%20-%20v1%201.doc

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Hi Magpie & Hammer6... thanks for your posts with regards to 'Freedom Of Information Act', and the fantastic links that were included within the posts.

 

As we are all aware, The Freedom Of Information Act isn't always that free, and some information is not divulged because of it's nature.  And sometimes that information has a right to be known.

 

I firmly believe that with regards to sex offenders, information about their convictions should be divulged when they are placed in a community, purely and simply for the protection of the children living there.  I believe that parents have a right to know.  This then raises the issue of revenge attacks and the harassment of the registered sex offender, and whilst I might get lynched for saying this, when it comes to human rights, when did the human rights of the abused and murdered children come into effect when these beasts were doing their thing?

 

Recommendations for the UK

What then can policy makers in the UK developing a response to the management of sex offenders in the community learn from the experience of Megan's law in the USA? On September 15, 2000 the Government announced a package of measures to strengthen the protection of children and provide information to the public. These measures were developed by the Government in consultation with the Police, Probation and the NSPCC and provided a response to the tragic death of Sarah Payne. Some of the measures were new, others amended the Sex Offenders Act 1997. The Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000 introduced the package of measures including a new statutory duty upon the police and probation to establish arrangements for assessing and arranging the risks posed by sex offenders. Initial guidance issued in April 2001 sets out minimum standards for the operation of the arrangements for assessing risk to be called Multi-Agency Public Protection Panels (MAPPPs). The initial guidance also requires MAPPPs to produce an annual report on the management of sex offenders. This is coupled with a power for the Secretary of State to issue guidance designed to better inform the public about the management of sex offenders in the community.

  • Monitoring and evaluation. It is important that the Sex Offenders Act 1997 and the new powers introduced by the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000 are monitored and evaluated. This will ensure that questions about the UK measures to manage sex offenders in the community and their effectiveness in protecting children and restoring public confidence can be addressed authoritatively, lessons learnt and future policy developed and implemented in the most effective manner possible. The consequences of the requirements of the Sex Offenders Act 1997 on sex offenders also needs to be monitored and evaluated to provide information about the impact upon treatment and reintegration into the community, housing, vigilantism and harassment. The NSPCC recommends that the Sex Offenders Act 1997 and the new measures introduced by the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000 are monitored and evaluated.

  • Notification. The disclosure of information about sex offenders to agencies and the public is an important part of the management of sex offenders in the community and needs to be evaluated and monitored. The review of the first year of the Sex Offenders Act 1997 (Plotnikoff and Woolfson, 2000) showed that all the police forces had developed a policy on the disclosure of information and that a variety of methods had been used, including education in schools and use of the media. This research on Megan's law in the US and knowledge about current practice in some areas of this country indicate that community meetings held on a multi-agency basis address some of the concerns that communities have about sex offenders and protecting children. The NSPCC believes that it is important that these meetings and all other methods used to disclose information are monitored and evaluated in order to assess their effectiveness and to develop good practice.

  • A consistent, co-ordinated, multi-agency approach. A consistent, co-ordinated multi-agency approach to the management of sex offenders is required and child protection should be paramount. The NSPCC welcomes the establishment of the multi agency public protection panels on a statutory footing and believes that this will introduce consistent practice. The initial guidance has begun this process by setting out minimum standards for the first year of operation. It is important that the initial guidance is developed and builds on existing good interagency practice in relation to child protection. Both Working together (Department of Health, 1999) and Good practice in the multi-agency management of sex offenders who assault children (NOTA, 1993) provide useful models for multi-agency working.

    It is also important that there is a co-ordinated approach to the management of sex offenders between MAPPPs and the child protection system to ensure that sex abusers who pose a risk are identified and protected across the two systems. The initial guidance mentions the involvement of Social Services, Health, and Local Authority Housing Departments. The NSPCC believes that it is important that MAPPPs be required to have a child protection representation, whether this be from the Local Authority, the Area Child Protection Committee or the local NSPCC. The NSPCC recommends that a Working together style document is produced by Government to set out the roles and responsibilities of agencies in relation to the management of sex offenders in the community.

  • Good risk assessment procedures. The NSPCC welcomes the establishment of risk assessment arrangements on a statutory basis and that the police and probation are the appropriate bodies to carry out the risk assessment process. It is important that the risk assessment process is seen as a continuous process, insofar as the level of risk posed by a sex offender can change, which requires resources. The NSPCC recommends that MAPPPs are provided with Government funding to ensure that they are enabled to carry out the inter-agency co-ordination, the management of the risk assessment process and the public awareness functions effectively.

  • Improved public information about child protection procedures. The initial guidance contains a requirement upon local MAPPPs to produce an annual report about the management of sex offenders in the community and child protection procedures. The guidance also suggests that information be provided concerning who to report suspicious behaviour to. The NSPCC welcomes the introduction of annual reports and recommends that the local MAPPPs be accompanied by a national annual report from Government containing information about the various initiatives on sex offenders such as the accredited community sex offender treatment programmes.

  • Education and awareness based on what is known about sexual abuse. It should be remembered that although strangers and people within the community perpetrate some child sex abuse, most occurs within families. It is also true that only a fraction of those who abuse are ever convicted. Therefore, education campaigns should raise awareness of the issue of the sexual abuse of children based on this knowledge, and provide appropriate information about how to keep children safe from all sexual abuse.

  • An effective prevention strategy. An effective prevention strategy is required to address child sex abuse. Most sex abusers are in the community, and many have not been convicted of an offence. Ways of encouraging sex abusers to seek help need to be explored, and treatment offered to all sex abusers, not only those who are convicted. The NSPCC works in partnership with police, probation and social services in assessing and providing treatment services to sex offenders who pose a risk to children.

    One such approach involves an innovative prevention project called Stop it now! Originating in the US, this project aims to provide help and treatment to sex abusers and uses public health approaches to sex abuse. Stop it now! is being explored in the UK and Ireland by the Lucy Faithful Foundation, the NSPCC, Barnardo's, the National Organisation for the Treatment of Abusers (NOTA) and the Home Office. Funding is required at local level to enable local partnerships to set up pilots. The NSPCC recommends that more creative ways of funding Stop it now! pilots are explored at national and local level through partnerships between public health and crime reduction.


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I also try ed to get into the Freedom of information act but came up agains't a brick wall why they have the page god knows?????????????????/

 

                                                                     TAM

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ACPO FREEDOM OF INFORMATION MANUAL

 

 

http://www.acpo.police.uk/asp/policies/Data/Public%20Facing%20Version%20-%20v1%201.doc


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All the TEAM @ ferrisconspiracy.com wishes to thank ALL its current members and surfers for visiting the site.

 

Here are the official figures: 184,377


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And a big thank you, to  all  the ferris conspiracy team for all the great info and advice on this great website,keep up the great work,cheers frankie

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Quote:
Originally Posted by frankie

And a big thank you, to  all  the ferris conspiracy team for all the great info and advice on this great website,keep up the great work,cheers frankie

Its our pleasure to inform and advise as best we can


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‘Secretive’ officials erode public trust


 

PUBLIC trust in government has declined sharply in the past year because of revelations about the secretive behaviour of officials exposed by freedom of information legislation.

Only 46% of people in Scotland think the public should have more confidence in the decisions made by public authorities, compared with 53% a year ago. And there has been a similar drop, from 67% to 60%, in those who think public authorities are becoming more accountable.

The Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act, which came into force in January last year, was meant to boost confidence in government decision-making by making it more transparent. But an opinion poll of more than 1000 people for the Scottish information commissioner, Kevin Dunion, suggests that so far it has had the opposite effect.

“A lot of the stories that have come about because of freedom of information are stories the authorities would have previously withheld and weren’t keen on releasing,” said Dunion.

Details of the taxi receipts that led to the downfall of David McLetchie MSP, the former Tory leader at Holyrood, were initially kept secret by the Scottish parliament, though all MSPs’ expenses are now put online. And it took Northern Constabulary more than 15 months to say how much they paid for two Land Rovers – and only when they were ordered to do so by Dunion.

“When information has to be dragged out of authorities, we should not be surprised that the public is not wholly impressed,” Dunion said.

Other factors, such as the government’s reasons for invading Iraq, could also have damaged public trust.

The opinion poll is due to be unveiled at a major conference on freedom of information in Edinburgh tomorrow . It was conducted by telephone in October by the Scottish social research agency, Progressive.

It comes as Dunion faces the first court challenges to his decisions. Next month, he is being taken to the Court of Session in Edinburgh by the Scottish Executive in an attempt to overturn two rulings ordering the release of ministerial correspondence about legal reform and a quarry in Ayrshire.

Earlier this month the National Health Service was in court arguing that obeying Dunion’s instruction to release details of childhood cancer cases in Dumfries and Galloway would breach patient confidentiality. A verdict is not expected until the New Year.

Since January 2005, Dunion has issued 300 decisions. In a clear majority of cases – 191 – he found either wholly or partly in favour of the applicant and against the public authority, either requiring information to be released or criticising the procedures used.

The opinion poll he commissioned showed 73% of people had heard of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act, up from 44% in 2004. As many as 68% agreed “more public authority information is available now than before”.

Despite declining confidence in decisions made by public authorities, the poll suggested there was a growing belief that freedom of information law was working. The proportion of people agreeing “public authorities will find a way round the act and won’t provide information they don’t want to” dropped from 66% last year to 57% now.

Because of concerns about the burdens on public authorities, ministers have been reviewing the operation of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act, though they have not yet decided what changes to make.

“ We have found the public’s response to freedom of information to be positive,” an executive spokeswoman said.

Dunion added that increased confidence in decision-making was the “big prize” politicians had wanted freedom of information legislation to bring. He was hopeful this would still be the outcome in the longer term.

“We’ve come a long way in a short time, but we’ve still to get the culture change the Act envisages,we’ve embarked, but we’ve not yet arrived.”


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Freedom of Information: the UK  


The UK Freedom of Information Act came into effect in January 2005.

Earlier in May 2004 the Treasury was accused of trying to sabotage the Act by introducing charges - thought to be between £50 and £575. In October 2004 the constitutional affairs secretary, promised that the Government would not charge prohibitive fees.

Transparency is one of the keys to the prevention of corruption. So the passage of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, covering the UK except Scotland, and the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 was a welcome step forward. Both Acts came into full effect from 1 January 2005. At the same time additional rights to information came into force:

* The Environmental Information Regulations 2004 for the UK
* The Environmental Information (Scotland) Regulations 2004
* Amendments to the Data Protection Act 1998

The Environmental Information Regulations (EIRs) are the UK implementation of a European Union directive. The Campaign for Freedom of Information regards the EIRs as providing a stronger right to information that the FoI Acts.

'Environmental information'' is defined widely so that it covers information about the state of the air, water, land, natural sites, living organisms (including genetically modified organisms), emissions or discharges to the air, water or land (including energy, noise and radiation). It also covers information on legislation, policies, plans, activities, administrative and other measures likely to affect any of these or intended to protect them. Assessments of the costs or benefits of such measures and reports on the implementation of environmental legislation, and the extent that any of these factors affect human health or safety, food contamination, living conditions, built structures or cultural sites is all defined as environmental information.

Some right to access information already existed in the UK. In local government the Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985 covers access to documents associated with meetings.

There are also a variety of different laws requiring public bodies (usually councils) to publish information relating to planning, education, social services and housing and to provide the public with the right to attend meetings on certain issues.

The Freedom of Information Act 2000 covers over 100,000 public authorities in the UK, including:

* Central government departments and agencies
* Local government,
* The NHS, including individual GPs, dentists, opticians and pharmacists;
* Police and armed forces
* Schools, colleges and universities,
* Quangos, regulators, advisory bodies, publicly owned companies and the BBC and Channel 4 (though not in relation to journalistic materials).

It includes government departments operating in Scotland; public authorities in England, Wales and Northern Ireland; the House of Commons and the House of Lords; and the Welsh and (when reconvened) Northern Ireland assemblies. The full list of bodies covered is available at: http://www.foi.gov.uk/coverage.htm

The Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 also covers the Scottish Executive and Scottish Parliament local authorities, NHS bodies, police forces, schools, colleges and universities and other Scottish authorities. A full list is available at: http://www.itspublicknowledge.info/foiact8.htm

Ministers can also designate non-public bodies that provide public services as coming under the Act for those services. A Parliamentary order is required in order to do this. If it is, you will be able to apply for information about those functions or services directly to the private body. No private bodies have been included as of April 2005.

Courts and tribunals are not covered by either Act nor are the security and intelligence services.

The FOI Acts and EIRs apply to any recorded information held by or on behalf of a public body, including: paper records, emails, information stored on computer, audio or video cassettes, microfiche, maps, photographs, handwritten notes or any other form of recorded information.

Public bodies can withhold information but only if an exemption in the Act allows them to. Even exempt information may have to be disclosed in the public interest. If an applicant thinks information has been improperly withheld it is possible to complain to the independent Information Commissioner, who can order disclosure.

The UK Act is enforced by the UK Information Commissioner and the Scottish Act by the Scottish Information Commissioner.

Public authorities have 20 working days in which to reply to a FoI request.

There will usually not be a charge, but if there is the authority must tell the applicant in advance. You can be charged for copying, printing and postage. If the cost incurred by the authority in responding to your request is more than £600 for a government department or £450 for all other public bodies, then they are not required to respond at all.

Under the UK and Scottish FOI Acts public bodies are entitled to refuse to supply information n certain circumstances, i.e. if:

* The cost of finding and extracting the information would cost more than the set cost limit.
* The authority has already provided you with the same or substantially similar information in which case you may have to wait a 'reasonable' time before you can apply again.
* Your request is 'vexatious' - for example, if it is made in order to disrupt the authority’s work or is part of an obsessive pattern of requests.
* The information is covered by an exemption which is not subject to the Act’s public interest test. These are known as 'absolute' exemptions.
* The information is covered by an exemption to which the public interest test does apply but in this case the public interest in withholding the information is greater than the public interest in its disclosure.

Under the UK FoI Act, an authority can refuse to say whether it holds particular information if:

* to do so would be likely to prejudice an interest such as international relations or law enforcement and the public interest in not confirming the existence of the information is greater than the public interest in doing so

* the information relates to a matter such as the formulation of government policy or investigations carried out by a prosecuting authority and the public interest in not confirming the existence of the information is greater than the public interest in doing so.

* the information itself would not have to be disclosed anyway, e.g., information about the security services or court records.

It is possible to challenge decisions of public authorities not to divulge information. First, it requires an appeal to the authority under the Act. Then if still dissatisfied, the applicant can complain to the UK Information Commissioner or the Scottish Information Commissioner. An appeal is available against the decision of the Commissioner:

Under the UK FOI Act or EIRs an appeal can be made to the Information Tribunal against the Commissioner’s decision by an applicant or the authority. There is a right of appeal against the Tribunal’s decisions to the High Court on a point of law. Under the Scottish FOI Act or EIRs the only right of appeal against the Commissioner’s decisions is to the Court of Session on a point of law.

Finally ministers have a veto which allows them to overrule certain decisions taken by the Commissioner.

A fuller explanation of the various Acts and use of them can be found in the excellent pamphlet from the Campaign for Freedom of Information, A Short Guide to the Freedom of Information Act and Other New Access Rights.

http://www.againstcorruption.org/BriefingsItem.asp?id=12438


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http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/opensecrets/


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March 11, 2007

Official secrecy is back on the rise

People trying to use the Freedom of Information Act already face bureaucratic stonewalling. New rules will make it worse, writes Peter Millar

On January 8, 2005 Dr Peter Bowbrick, inspired by the Freedom of Information Act (FoI) that had just come into force, decided to use this great new tool of open government to find out how the decision had been taken to close his nearby state school.

He believed that the premises of Margaret Glen-Bott school in Nottingham had been wrongly handed over to a faith school that he suspected of practising “hidden selection”: “giving away a school worth £30m for just £1”.

He sent an e-mail to Alan Stead, the council official in charge of inquiries under the act. Nearly a month later, rather than the 20 days stipulated, he received a reply from a different council officer telling him that he should be satisfied with what he had already been sent.

Bowbrick was puzzled; he had received nothing at all. He wrote back to tell them so. A week later a council solicitor replied telling him that the details were “in draft form” and therefore exempt from release under the act. The council had no other information. If he liked, he could complain to the information commissioner.

Unsurprisingly, he did. It didn’t do any good. Richard Thomas, the commissioner, accepted the council’s word. His office issued a notice in July upholding its refusal to do any more. Three weeks later it reissued the notice this time correctly referring to Nottingham city council, not Cornwall county council.

Bowbrick was getting a bit annoyed by now. He decided to take the case to a tribunal. The tribunal ordered the city council to produce any documents by August 29. It didn’t. Only in October, when ordered to a hearing, did the council promise to cooperate.

Bowbrick offered to go and help it find the relevant pieces of paper. The council told him not to bother and at last sent him a few details. Encouraged, he replied with 18 pages of specific questions.

The council didn’t reply. Officials were summoned to a new hearing in December, by when they suddenly managed to locate more than 1,000 relevant pages. There turned out to be more. Much more. It became clear from sworn testimony that some 3,500 pages in the council education department alone had been quickly collected and could have been handed over. Instead their existence was denied.

The tribunal found in Bowbrick’s favour and ordered the council to pay costs. He is still waiting for his money but has given up hope of seeing the rest of the documents: “I have worked [as a consultant economist for the United Nations and other bodies] in 30 countries, including Vietnam when the communist regime was at its strictest, and never encountered government secrecy as tight as in Britain.”

Now, despite Lord Falconer, the constitutional affairs secretary, hailing it last week as “the single most significant act of any government in improving transparency, accessibility and accountability”, he is about to introduce new regulations that critics believe will strangle a piece of legislation already in danger of being suffocated by bureaucracy.

The commissioner, who admits to a huge backlog of complaints, is due to address a Commons select committee on the impact of proposed new regulations on March 20.

According to Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, “a large part of government never really bought into the FoI act at all”. Falconer last week complained that the government had “subsidised the BBC’s research to the tune of about £1m since the act came in”. But it is concerned members of the public, such as Bowbrick, who are most likely to suffer from the new regulations.

According to Frankel, it costs £35m annually to deal with 120,000 requests, not exactly a fortune for Falconer’s “most significant act of any government”. The planned changes would cut the bill by £10m, “petty change as far as government is concerned”.

FoI information is provided free if the cost (calculated at £25 per hour for a civil servant) of looking it up is less than £600 from central government or £450 from local authorities. The new proposal, however, would add on the extra time spent examining the material to see if there are obvious reasons not to release it — breach of confidence, prejudice to commercial interests — or if it is exempt from the act. In other words, officials could look at a request and say, “It’ll take us a long time to make up our minds about that”, and make that an excuse for not releasing it. Clause 22: Catch 22.

They will also have a new right to “aggregate” requests, so that if a group of people make separate requests they believe to be “in concert” they can be denied, as can any one individual making too many requests — even on widely different subjects — within a 60-day period.

Authorities would gain the power to penalise requesters considered “vexatious” or “uncooperative”, which Frankel says opens the door to simply ignoring people who appeal to the commissioner or, worse, “use information in a way the authorities don’t like”. Which is, of course, often the reason for requesting it.

John Large, a consulting engineer, is a prime example of someone whose legitimate business would be severely hit by the new “aggregation” criteria. Last year Large was asked by Greenpeace to compile a dossier on the decommissioned Hinkley Point nuclear reactor. He submitted detailed requests for nearly 300 reports that he knew had been compiled. The file returned to him had more than 90% of the requests blacked out. “You only ask for information if you know it exists,” he says. “But it’s frustrating when you ask for a document you already have and are told it doesn’t exist.”

Large knows about that first hand: in 2001 he was advising the government of Gibraltar on repairs to the nuclear submarine HMS Tireless, then controversially docked in the port. He sent a report on the state of the boat to the Ministry of Defence. When compiling a paper in 2005 he requested related documents under FoI, including his own report. He was told there was no record of it: “I was told it was not in the public interest to release certain information, I asked how they defined the public interest and they told me it would not be in the public interest for them to tell me.”

According to Large: “The FoI people you get through to tend to be very nice girls who tell you to call them by their first names, but they’re just fronting for the hard-nosed bastards.”

The government-commissioned report singles out examples of frivolous “vexatious requesters” which while calculated to provoke laughter — a request for the total amount spent on Ferrero Rocher chocolates in UK embassies, and information on a sweater given to George Bush by No 10 — are not exactly expecting serious replies.

Quite different to that of Juliet McBride, a seasoned antinuclear campaigner who spent months trying to get details of risk assessment for the population of Southampton in plans to create a nuclear submarine berth there.

As a former Greenham Common campaigner she was not surprised to learn the BBC had discovered that police admitted having to “paper over the evidential gaps” in cases brought against her co-pro-testers in the 1980s. The source for the BBC report? Information elicited under the Freedom of Information Act. It is not all bad news. Yet.


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The price of freedom...

A version of this article by the Campaign's director, Maurice Frankel, appeared in the July-August 2006 edition of Free Press,
published by the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom.

 

The amount of information released under the Freedom of Information Act could be severely cut back, according to a leaked cabinet committee paper. This proposes significant changes to the Act's charging arrangements.

At the moment, FOI requests are normally answered without charge. Authorities can charge for photocopies but not for the time they spend dealing with requests. However, they can refuse to answer altogether if the cost of searching for the information exceeds a set amount. For government departments this is £600, equivalent to 24 hours of staff time. For others the figure is £450 or 18 hours.

The leaked paper, obtained by the Sunday Times, reveals that a cabinet committee is considering three changes. The first is a standard application fee for all requests. The second is to allow multiple requests by the same person on different subjects to be refused if their total cost exceeds the limit. The third is to allow all the time officials spend working on a request, not just the search time, to count towards this limit. The idea is said to be to reduce the cost of legislation by deterring “serial requesters” and allowing “the most difficult requests” to be refused. But the proposals are clearly intended to produce substantial overall cuts in the numbers of requests.

A flat fee would hit all requesters indiscriminately, deterring people on low incomes as much as high volume requesters. It could also lead to charges for routine information. Any written request is automatically an FOI application, even if the applicant doesn't mention the Act. The new fees could allow authorities to demand a cheque before responding to queries of the “when did you last empty my bin?” kind.

Ireland's experience suggests that application fees could be devastating. In 2003, a £10 up-front application fee was introduced under Ireland's FOI Act. The number of requests instantly collapsed to one quarter the previous year's level. That is the last thing we need here.

The second proposal is to be to aggregate the costs of requests on different subjects by the same applicant. This can already be done for multiple requests on the same subject. Allowing unrelated requests to be treated the same way could severely ration the use of the Act by newspapers and campaigning organisations.

The third proposal would be to take account of the time officials spend considering requests. Currently the cost limits apply to the time spent looking for information. A single report raising complex issues under the Act's exemptions could be refused because of the time needed to think about it. The longer officials scratched their heads the greater the chance of a refusal. If ministers got involved in the decision, as they often do, their time might be enough to sink the request. The opportunities for abuse are obvious.

The cost limits are inflexible and make no allowance for the importance of the information. Although the Act has a public interest test which can require authorities to disclose exempt information in the public interest this does not apply to cost refusals. It would not matter if the report described an overwhelming risk to public safety or a blatant abuse of public office - the material would be withheld.

What's behind all this? Some departments do receive large numbers of requests, but publicly ministers have said it is only the 'frivolous' or 'vexatious' requests which concern them. In fact, the number of frivolous requests seems tiny. As for 'vexatious' requests, the Act already allows these to be refused. The Information Commissioner, who enforces the Act, has interpreted this test broadly, and supported authorities which have refused unreasonably high volumes of requests from the same individual.

The Act has just begun to chip away at the system's deep seated secrecy. An indication of the great range of information now being disclosed can be seen from summaries of 500 FOI press stories at http://www.cfoi.org.uk. Any one of the government's new proposals could seriously limit this flow of information, making it harder for requesters to ask penetrating questions and easier for authorities to avoid scrutiny. All three would be a massive blow.

Maurice Frankel is director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information
http://www.cfoi.org.uk


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