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Government backtrack as FoI decision is delayed.

Thursday March 29, 2007

Lord Falconer
Falconer: has wanted to make it easier for government bodies to reject FoI requests. Photograph: Chris Young/PA
 

Government ministers are backtracking over plans to restrict the public's right to request official documents under the Freedom of Information Act, it emerged today.

The plans have been heavily criticised by MPs, the media and campaigners, who say the proposals would have "ripped the heart [out] of the Act" and drastically curbed the release of politically sensitive and controversial documents.

Lord Falconer, the constitutional affairs secretary, has wanted to make it easier for government bodies to reject requests by saying that they are too time-consuming and expensive to answer.

The government announced today that the public will be given another three months to give their views on the proposals. There has already been one three-month consultation, which ended three weeks ago.

Originally, Lord Falconer was going to enforce the plans without holding a public consultation. It is understood that the government was determined to have implemented the proposals, first announced in October, by now.

In today's announcement, ministers are also allowing the public to give their opinion on whether the principle of the proposals is a justifiable idea.

In the previous consultation, ministers insisted that the plans were going to go ahead, but asked members of the public whether they agreed with the fine details.

Maurice Frankel, the director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, said: "This is exceptionally good news. This raises the strong possibility that the government will eventually decide to leave the current arrangements untouched.

"If it does decide to make any changes, they are likely to be far more limited than the highly damaging restrictions which had been proposed."

The public will now have until June 21 to make extra protests. Ministers will then take three months after that to consider what to do.

Ministers have argued that a small number of people, often from the media, are submitting a large number of requests for information, taking up an unjustifiable amount of civil servants' time.

Baroness Ashton, the junior constitutional affairs minister, said: "The Freedom of Information Act has benefited the public enormously. We must continue to build on its success.

"It is entirely right that a reasonable amount of money and time is spent dealing with requests for information. But public money is limited and it is the government's responsibility to ensure it is not unduly diverted from supporting the delivery of frontline services."

Last week, Richard Thomas, the information commissioner who polices the FoI Act, in effect called on ministers to drop the plans, saying that they would "introduce new layers of procedural and bureaucratic complexity".

He also said the plans would "significantly reduce" the flow of information released to the public.

At the moment, FoI requests are normally free. Under the current rules, a request can be refused if the cost of locating and retrieving the relevant information rises above a certain limit - £600 for Whitehall departments and £450 for other public bodies such as local councils.

But Lord Falconer has proposed expanding the number of activities which could be counted by officials when calculating the cost of processing an FoI request. This would allow public bodies to reach the fees limit much more quickly.

These activities would include the time spent reading the documents and then considering and consulting with others about whether the documents can be released.

In a second proposal, Lord Falconer wanted to allow public bodies to combine requests from an individual or organisation over a three-month period, and then treat all these requests as one request against the specified cost cap.

· To contact the MediaGuardian newsdesk email editor@mediaguardian.co.uk or phone 020 7239 9857. For all other inquiries please call the main Guardian switchboard on 020 7278 2332.

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

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Ministers backtrack on secrecy plans...


Friday March 30, 2007.


Ministers are backtracking over plans to restrict the public's right to request official documents under the Freedom of Information Act, it emerged yesterday.

The retreat follows opposition from MPs, the media and campaigners, who say the proposals would drastically curb the release of politically sensitive and controversial documents.

Lord Falconer, the constitutional affairs secretary, has wanted to make it easier for government bodies to reject requests on the grounds that they are too time-consuming and expensive to answer.He has now delayed introducing the proposals. Instead, his department announced yesterday that the public will be given another three months to give their views on the proposals. There has already been one three-month consultation, which ended three weeks ago.

Originally, ministers wanted the proposals, first announced last October, to have been implemented by now, without holding a consultation with the public.

When the new consultation ends on June 21, ministers will have up to three months to consider what to do.

The announcement was welcomed by critics. Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, said: "This raises the strong possibility that the government will decide to leave the current arrangements untouched."

Ministers claim that a small number of requests, often from the media, are taking a huge amount of civil servants' time to answer.

At the moment, requests are normally free. Under current rules, a request can be refused if the cost of locating and retrieving the requested information rises above a certain limit - £600 for Whitehall and £450 for other public bodies.

But Lord Falconer has proposed expanding the number of activities which could be counted by officials, allowing public bodies to reach the limit much more quickly.




Special report
Freedom of information

Regulators
The information commissioner
Parliamentary ombudsman

Freedom of Information Act
The Act explained
Freedom of Information Act 2000: full text

Downing Street
Timetable for implementation
Report of Advisory Group on Openness in the Public Sector

Speech
The Lord Chancellor

Pressure group
Campaign for Freedom of Information

Link
FOIA Centre


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Freedom of Information vote 'places MPs above law'.

  • MPs were accused last night of putting themselves "above the law" after voting to be exempt from their own Freedom of Information (FoI) rules.

     
    Houses of Parliament and police: Freedom of Information vote 'places MPs above the law'
    Critics say Parliament is putting itself above the law

    By 96 votes to 25, the Commons approved controversial plans put forward by the former Tory chief whip David Maclean to exempt Parliament from the FoI regime.

    The move - backed by 78 Labour MPs and 18 Conservatives - would potentially allow them to refuse to disclose full details of their expenses claims.

    Both the Labour and Tory front benches have claimed that, as essentially a "matter for Parliament", they are neutral on the issue.

    However, several ministers - including Tony McNulty, the Home Office minister, and Phil Woolas, the local government minister - voted for the FoI exemption yesterday, while there were also suspicions of "tacit" Tory support.

    Yesterday's controversial decision came despite opposition from a small cross-party group, mainly made up of Liberal Democrats. The Lib Dem leader, Sir Menzies Campbell, also appealed to Gordon Brown "to stand up for the openness and accountability of MPs". Mr Brown, the Chancellor and Prime Minister-in-waiting, was not at the Commons yesterday.

    Mr Maclean, whose Private Member's Bill still has to be approved by the House of Lords, has repeatedly claimed that the exemption is needed to protect correspondence between MPs and their constituents from being published under FoI requests. He insisted that his Bill will not prevent MPs' travel expenses being published.

    Norman Baker, the Lib Dem MP for Lewes and a leading opponent, insisted the was no need for Mr Maclean's Bill. He and other opponents say that data protection rules already cover MPs' correspondence.

    The Government's claims to be neutral were thrown into doubt by a leaked memo from Labour's parliamentary committee urging MPs to turn up to vote for Mr Maclean's bill. The memo, posted on the website of the Campaign for Freedom of Information (CFOI), tells Labour MPs: "We feel strongly as your parliamentary committee representatives that the measures contained in the Bill are worthy of support."

    Mark Fisher, a former Labour minister who voted against the Bill, said: "People will be aghast. They will be amazed and horrified that we have placed ourselves above the law."


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    Reply with quote  #34 

    FCO's Ferrero Rocher bill 'can remain secret'...


    Public bodies will receive guidelines on how to deal with frivolous and vexatious requests for data, the Information Commissioner has announced.

    Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner, said that mischievous and pointless demands under the Freedom of Information act are wasting taxpayers money.

    Examples of such requests include inquiries about the Prime Minister’s make-up bill; the number of eligible bachelors in Hampshire police; and the amount spent on Ferrero Rocher chocolates by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

    Other frivolous queries since the FoI Act came into force in January 2005, include the number of light bulbs used by the MOD and how much is spent on toilet paper at Downing Street.

    In another FoI request, to the BBC, a viewer wrote “Please can you inform me how much revenus the BBC makes from programs where viewers vote for example:- strictly come dancing, dragons den, x factor, programs in which viewers sms text in.” [sic]

    The corporation responded “Please note that the ‘X-Factor” is not a BBC programme so we are unable to comment on it. The BBC Two programme ‘Dragon’s Den’ does not make use of viewer’s votes. The BBC One programme ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ raises money for Children In Need from its use of premium rate numbers. In the most recent series £1,571,879 was raised for the charity.”

    Mr Thomas told the BBC that authorities are not making enough use of exciding guideline allowing them to reject applications in certain circumstances.

    His comments come amid the outcry over a Tory MP’s bid to exempt Parliament from its own FoI laws.

    Mr Maclean yesterday moved to change his private member’s bill in an attempt to save it from defeat in the House of Lords. He put down an amendment to introduce a statutory requirement that details of MPs’ expenses and allowances would continue to be published.

    Tory leader David Cameron has warned Conservatives would vote against the measure in its current form when it came to the upper chamber.

    Economic Secretary Ed Balls - Gordon Brown’s closest political lieutenant - has also said that he believed the Bill should be changed to ensure the continuing publication of expenses.

    The measure - which Mr Maclean insists is needed to protect the confidentiality of MPs’ correspondence with constituents - could still be sunk amid claims he is struggling to find a peer prepared to sponsor it in the Lords.


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    Reply with quote  #35 
    Glasgow City Council...

     

    The Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act:   

    How to Obtain Information From the Council

    What is the Freedom of Information Act?

     

    The Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act (FOI) came into effect from 1 January 2005, and aims to increase openness and accountability by ensuring people can access information held by Scottish public authorities - including, of course, Glasgow City Council.

    People have the right to access all types of recorded information and, apart from certain specific exemptions, authorities and their staff must comply with these requests.

    Every type of recorded information the Council holds is covered by the Act, including old records, archives, minutes and business papers.  FOI is retrospective, meaning people can ask for information relating to issues from years ago.  Enquirers do not have to give a reason for asking for the information.

     

    Are there any exceptions to providing information?

     

    Yes, there are some.  If, for example:  giving the information would cause a breach of confidence to a third party;  if it divulged personal information on an individual;  or if the information was commercially sensitive.  The Council can give advice on exemptions, which are detailed in the Act.

     

    How much does it cost?

     

    Scottish Executive regulations govern the scale of fees which can be applied for providing information. Costs for providing published materials are set out in the Council’s Publication Scheme.

    The Council has discretion in applying fees. You will be advised of any costs applicable and will be required to pay costs before the information is provided.

     

    What is an FOI request?

     

    Any individual or organisation can make a request for information the Council holds, and will be entitled to receive it, provided no exemptions apply.  Requests must :

    be in writing or some other permanent form (eg e-mail or recorded message) state the applicant’s name and address describe what information is required.

     

    You can make an FOI request in the following ways:

     

    • E-mail Freedom of Information enquiries/requests to:  foi@glasgow.gov.uk.
    • Phone:  0845 270 1555 (+44(0)1414181792 if calling outside the UK)
    • Complete an on-line request form.
    • Fill in and return a Request Form to the address below
    • Post  your request to:
      • Glasgow City Council
        Freedom of Information
        City Chambers
        George Square
        Glasgow G2 1DU

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    Reply with quote  #36 

    There is no evidence that the Freedom of Information Act needs to be limited, MPs have said.

    Government plans for new cost limits on FoI requests were "unnecessary, unpopular and undesirable" the constitutional affairs committee added.  

     

    Files
    More than 100,000 public bodies
    have been subject to FoI requests.

    It said the changes could allow public bodies to dodge embarrassing or difficult questions.

    The government, which is consulting on restricting the act, has said changes could save £4.7m a year.

    The committee examined proposals to extend the current £600 limit on processing requests, to include the time taken by officials and ministers to consider them.  

    It would also mean several requests by one company, organisation or individual, even on different topics, could be dealt with together.

    The committee criticised ministers for failing to provide evidence the changes were necessary, saying an analysis of the costs and benefits of the proposed limits had been incomplete.

     

    "We conclude that the proposed regime could result in public authorities avoiding answers to embarrassing, contentious or high-profile cases," the report said.

    "No clear evidence to support the decision that a change to the charging regime was necessary has been published."

    The committee chairman, Liberal Democrat Alan Beith, said: "The FoI Act works. It enhances the rights of the public.

    "Neither the government nor MPs should be seeking to limit its effectiveness, and there is no evidence here to support either the government's proposals on fees or the bill.

    "I am hopeful that both will now be dropped."

     

    The committee also criticised a separate private member's bill which aimed to exempt MPs and peers from the Act altogether.

    Director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, Maurice Frankel, accused the government of trying to sabotage FoI legislation and said the new Labour leader Gordon Brown should "kill off both sets of malodorous proposals".

    A review of the impact of the Act last year found requests cost central government £24.4m a year and other public authorities £11.1m a year.

    More than 100,000 public bodies, including government departments, councils, the NHS, and universities, have been subject to FoI requests since 2005.

     

    The Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, has previously defended the government's proposals, saying: "You've got to strike some balance between it being free to the public, but not having civil servants or local authorities or central government spending a disproportionate amount of time answering the requests."

    ferrisconspiracy:VIEW "You've got to strike some balance between it being free to the public, but not having civil servants or local authorities or central government spending a disproportionate amount of time answering the requests."

    Is this the same public that voted them all in office? Are they a law unto themselves?

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    Reply with quote  #37 

     

    flag The Campaign for Freedom of Information
    in Scotland
    Logo

     

    http://www.cfoi.org.uk/scotland.html

     

     

    In Scotland we operate as the Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland (which is part of the Campaign for Freedom of Information). For further information, contact any of the CFOIinS's three co-converners, who are based in Glasgow: Carole Ewart, David Goldberg, or Derek Manson-Smith. Or write to CFOIinS at Wellpark Enterprise Centre, 120 Sydney Street, Glasgow G31 1JF.

    The Freedom of Information  (Scotland) Act was passed on 28 May 2002 and came fully into force on 1 January 2005.

    This page contains links to the Campaign's publications on the FOI (Scotland) Act and the proposals which preceded it. Details of forthcoming conferences and events in Scotland can be found on our Events page. You may also want to visit the Scottish Executive's FOI page or the Scottish Information Commissioner's site.

     
     
    ALSO:
     
     
    Welcome to the
    Campaign for Freedom of Information

     

    logo

     

    The Campaign for Freedom of Information is an non-profit organisation working to improve public access to official information and ensure that the Freedom of Information Act is implemented effectively.

    The Campaign was set-up in 1984, played a leading role in the passage of the FOI Act and is recognised as a leading independent authority in the field. We provide training both for public authorities implementing the Act and for users of the legislation. Please contact us for more details.

    We are not affiliated to any political party. Our main funding comes from charitable sources including the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust and the Nuffield Foundation and from supporting organisations and individuals.

    If you believe Britain is too secretive a society, please support our work by making a donation. Your contribution will make a difference and be greatly appreciated.

    If you can help by volunteering in our London office, please get in touch, as we often need extra help with campaigning, research projects and general office administration.

     

    http://www.cfoi.org.uk/

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    Reply with quote  #38 

    The Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 (2002 asp 13) was an Act of the Scottish Parliament passed in 2002. It covers public bodies over which the Scottish Parliament, rather than United Kingdom Parliament, has jurisdiction, fulfilling a similar purpose to the UK-level Freedom of Information Act 2000. It, too, came into force at the beginning of 2005.

    It should be noted that not all public bodies situated in Scotland fall under this remit - Scottish-based departments of the Ministry of Defence, for example, are not subject to the Scottish Parliament, and thus would be covered by the 2000 Act not the 2002 Act. Similarly the Scottish parts of UK-wide bodies such as the Forestry Commission (which is headquartered in Scotland) are subject to the 2000 Act rather than the 2002 Act, even though they fall within the remit of the Scottish Parliament. The Act also created a Scottish Information Commissioner, whose duties were similar to those of the Office of the Information Commissioner, but limited to the bodies covered by the 2002 Act.

    Whilst the two Acts are similar in principle, there are some significant differences in implementation; as a rule, the Scottish Act is more strongly worded. For example, the Scottish test for public interest is stated in terms of "substantial prejudice" rather than "prejudice", which is clearly a higher standard, and imposes a stricter time limit in cases where public interest has to be considered. It contains explicit mention of disability access rights and the duties incumbent on a body which does not have the information requested, both of which are lacking in the 2000 Act, and provides for an objective test (rather than "the reasonable opinion of a qualified person") to determine if the public interest means information should be withheld.

    The 2002 Act established a Scottish Information Commissioner, but no tribunal; any appeals against the Commissioner would go to the Court of Session.


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    Reply with quote  #39 

    The information watchdog today launches a strong attack on the way privatisation removes the public's right to know...

    Kevin Dunion, the Scottish Information Commissioner, yesterday ordered NHS Lothian to release the full contract it signed with Consort Healthcare to build and operate the new Edinburgh Royal Infirmary.

    Today he goes further, claiming that the drift towards private finance in education and housing as well as health endangers the spirit of the Freedom of Information legislation.

    He calls for a re-think of the law to ensure that the public's right to know "follows the money" when services are transferred into the private sector, although he confirms that genuine commercial confidentiality should be protected.

    He will tell the annual Freedom of Information Conference in Edinburgh: "When council housing is transferred to a housing association or when a charitable trust is established to run local authority leisure and recreation services, local people and employees may find that they have lost freedom of information rights at a stroke, as these bodies are not regarded as public authorities."

    Making clear that his judgment on the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary was not a one-off, but reflected a broader view about the hidden danger of privatisation, he makes clear his misgivings. "One of the key purposes of the freedom of information legislation was to allow authorities to be held to account publicly for their spending," he says.

    "However, in recent investigations I have found that contracts to build schools and hospitals can run to thousands of pages, and that authorities are able to withhold these on the grounds of cost or attempt to argue that the whole contract is confidential."

    Mr Dunion argues: "I think it is important that we review which bodies are covered by the freedom of information laws, and in addition take steps to ensure that information rights follow the money', where significant sums of public spending are concerned.

    "Measures can be taken to ensure that the new trusts are publicly owned and there could be a requirement to publish PPP contracts subject to safeguarding genuinely confidential elements."

    The office of the Scottish Information Commissioner points out that anomalies have arisen since the legislation came into force, and much of these relate to privatisation.

    Edinburgh successfully withheld details of its PFI/PPP schools contracts on the basis that providing information would exceed the £600 cost threshhold, and NHS Lothian attempted to argue the same in the case of the new Edinburgh Royal Infirmary.

    As an example of good practice Glasgow ensured that its new arts, museums and sports subsidiary was constituted as a public company - and therefore within FoI legislation - but North Ayrshire did not do this.

    Mr Dunion said of his judgment yesterday: "NHS Lothian sought to withhold all of these contracts with Consort Healthcare Consortium by claiming it was confidential." He said he asked the health board to justify this position several times but it failed to do so other than saying Consort did not want the information released.

    "Eventually I decided that the whole contract should be released," Mr Dunion said. "This is a wake-up call to all of those entering into contracts to say that you simply can't assume that there is such a thing as confidentiality under the Freedom of Information Act. Information will be disclosed unless there is good reason not to disclose it."

    Meanwhile, Lothians MSP Shirley-Anne Somerville yesterday welcomed Mr Dunion's ruling on Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. The SNP MSP said: "NHS Lothian must now adopt a more open and transparent way of working.


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    The Court of Session has backed a council's refusal to comply with a Freedom of Information request.

    Dumfries and Galloway Council had appealed against a decision by Information Commissioner Kevin Dunion ordering it to release the details.

    The request centred on complaints to trading standards about a particular company over a period of 10 years.

    The council said the Enterprise Act prohibited disclosure and its appeal has been ruled to be successful.

    The case started in February 2005 when an FOI request was made by a member of the public to all 32 councils across Scotland.

    It sought details of any complaints lodged against a particular company, its directors and employees over the previous 10 years.

    In addition the date of the complaint, a summary of its nature and the outcome of any investigation were requested.

    A number of councils - including the Dumfries and Galloway authority - declined to issue the information.

    That resulted in a ruling by the Information Commissioner in November 2006 that the details should be released.

    However, the Court of Session has now ruled against that judgment and quashed the commissioner's decision.


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    Reply with quote  #41 
     
     
     
       SO MUCH FOR FREEDOM OF INFORMATION WHEN YOU CAN'T ACCESS IT

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    Reply with quote  #42 

    A number of councils - including the Dumfries and Galloway authority - declined to issue the information

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    Reply with quote  #43 
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by frankie

    A number of councils - including the Dumfries and Galloway authority - declined to issue the information

     Freedom of Information Publication Scheme 

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    Reply with quote  #44 

    Quote:
    Originally Posted by gmac

    I would like to know what people's opinion's are on Freedom of Information applications are, and if anyone has applied to get any information from a government organization.
    My experience of this has been terrible and as far as I am concerned they may be opening the doors but they ain't letting us through, and this was information about a family member who has passed away.
     
    gmac

    Having read some of the posts here I thought that the following information may be of use. Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 (asp 13)


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    Reply with quote  #45 
    Good comments . I am thankful for the info . Does anyone know where my assistant would be able to access a fillable a form version to use ?
    Good comments . I am thankful for the info . Does anyone know where my assistant would be able to access a fillable a form version to use ?

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