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Today we’ve re-added Network Rail to the list of public bodies one can make requests for information from via mySociety’s Freedom of Information website WhatDoTheyKnow.
Network Rail owns, runs, maintains and develops most of the UK’s rail infrastructure including tracks, signalling, bridges, tunnels, level crossings, viaducts. It owns almost all of the UK’s stations and manages the biggest and busiest.
Network Rail is not currently subject to the Freedom of Information Act or the Environmental Information Regulations however we use our site for activism by listing many bodies which are not formally subject to FOI or EIR. Some of these voluntarily comply with FOI, others don’t but we add them because we think they ought be subject to the Act on grounds such as:
The degree to which Network Rail is a public body is a subject of controversy however a number of the criteria listed above clearly apply to the company.
The Information Commissioner once ruled that Network Rail is a public authority for the purposes of the Environmental Information Regulations however this was overturned by a Information Tribunal Decision in 2007 .
The tribunal decision noted:
[Network Rail] is a major landowner whose estate … in the words of its website, includes “many sites of great environmental, geological, historical and architectural importance” as well as much contaminated land.
The tribunal expressed a view the position of Network Rail in relation to access to information legislation is “clearly unsatisfactory”.
We originally added Network Rail to our site back in 2008 before we had developed the above policies and we closed it to new requests after the first request sent didn’t get a response.
Recently there have been positive indications in relation to access to information held by Network Rail. On the 2nd of February 2012, transport minister Norman Baker speaking in Parliament said:
Network Rail has promised that it is in the process of developing a voluntary information rights code, which will mirror many of the provisions in the Freedom of Information Act. We welcome that initiative and believe that, if properly implemented, it will provide an alternative to legislation. We expect the company to introduce the code alongside a broader package of Government reforms later this year.
This followed an earlier statement, from the 18th of January 2012, by Earl Attlee, answering a written question on behalf of the government:
Network Rail is a private sector company. The Government have no current plans to extend the Freedom of Information Act to the company. However, we welcome the fact that Network Rail is taking steps to enhance its own transparency and is developing a voluntary publication scheme with which it will comply.
The approved model publication scheme used by public bodies which have to have one states:
Information held by a public authority that is not published under this scheme can be requested in writing…
Hopefully our re-listing of Network Rail will help push Network Rail’s openness and transparency agenda along and enable our users to benefit from the new era of openness being promised within the company. Making correspondence related to requests for information publicly available via our site will enable everyone to see how it goes.
On the 21st of February 2012 Alex Skene, representing mySociety’s Freedom of Information website WhatDoTheyKnow, appeared in front of the UK Parliament’s Justice Select Committee. The MPs on the committee were holding an evidence session as part of their post-legislative scrutiny of the Freedom of Information Act.
Video of the session can be viewed online via ParliamentLive.TV and the BBC’s Democracy Live. A transcript of the session will become available via TheyWorkForYou, typically these take a week or two to be produced.
Prior to the session WhatDoTheyKnow had submitted written evidence to the review making three main points:
- The scope of the act should be extended to cover a wider range of public bodies.
- Time limits should be introduced for public interest tests and internal reviews.
- There is a need for more proactive publication of information, and a culture of openness and transparency needs to continue to be nurtured and extended within the UK’s public sector
The committee appeared genuinely interested in finding out how FOI has performed to-date and how it can be improved.
Alex told the committee that FOI enables evidence based policy making and empowers citizens; he said the WhatDoTheyKnow.com website supercharges the provisions of the FOI Act making it easier for people to take advantage of the right to access information which it gives them.
Elfyn Llwyd MP raised the question of vexatious and frivolous requests through the medium of ghosts. Asked if requests about ghosts could ever be justified Alex told MPs that it was hard to draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable requests. He noted that one council had spent public money on an exorcism, so in that case there would be information held and an FOI request justified. He questioned if requests on ghosts were to be deemed unacceptable, what other areas might be excluded. UFOs? The MoD for a long period did have an office collating UFO reports, again there was public spending, and recorded information held, in this area. Homeopathy was also highlighted, that’s about as real as ghosts or UFOs, but again FOI requests about it must surely be permitted as significant amounts of taxpayers money are spent on it.
Maurice Frankel, the director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, who was giving evidence alongside WhatDoTheyKnow took a stronger line. He described those who made FOI requests about ghosts as “idiots”; but also accepted it was hard, and undesirable, to try and outlaw requests on certain subjects. He added that such requests did not generally cost large amounts of money to deal with.
MPs on the committee appeared sympathetic to calls from the representatives of WhatDoTheyKnow and the Campaign for Freedom of Information to introduce stricter time limits. The need for time limits was brought into focus during the discussion of the time limits for prosecutions under S.77 of the Act (Offence of altering etc. records with intent to prevent disclosure), very few requests have gone through a response, and internal review, and the Information Commissioner within the time limit for launching a prosecution. An MP suggested making offences under S.77 triable in either a magistrates or a crown court so as to extend the time period while retaining consistency with the rest of the justice system.
When asked to comment on the idea of introducing fees for all FOI requests Alex said such proposals would be “devastating” and would deter many from making requests. Alex noted that the public had paid for the information in question already, via general taxation, and ought be able to access it.
When asked to comment on lobbying from universities to be exempted from FOI, Alex robustly defended their inclusion in the act, pointing to their role in controlling access to professions and awarding degrees. Maurice Frankel and Alex noted the universities’ argument that they were being funded by a decreasing fraction of public money wasn’t really relevant, as that is not the basis on which bodies are deemed to be covered by the Act.
Extending Coverage of FOI
The reach of FOI into commercial organisations carrying out work on behalf of public bodies was briefly discussed however notably there was little further discussion of extending the coverage of FOI, perhaps suggesting this may be a dedicated subject for future evidence session. This session was been described as the committee’s first, suggesting there will be more. At least one of these will presumably hear from the Information Commissioner.
The written evidence we submitted can be read on page 81 of the compendium of submitted evidence (PDF).
MPs are about to review the first five years of the operation of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. We’d like to encourage users of mySociety’s Freedom of Information website WhatDoTheyKnow.com to share their views and experiences with the MPs who are to carry out the review.
The review is being conducted by the House of Commons’ Justice Select Committee.
The committee is currently inviting people to make submissions to it. The deadline for submissions is Friday 3 February 2012.
A memorandum from the Ministry of Justice has been prepared to brief the committee, that document notes, in paragraph 67:
Very little research has been published detailing the views of requesters of information.
Particularly in light of this we thought it would be worthwhile alerting our users to this review; if we could encourage our users to make submissions to the committee that might help ensure they receive balanced evidence: from outside, as well as within, the public sector.
While the committee is interested in any comments on the act’s operation, specific questions the committee has asked for comment on are:
- Does the Freedom of Information Act work effectively?
- What are the strengths and weaknesses of the Freedom of Information Act?
- Is the Freedom of Information Act operating in the way that it was intended to?
Responses can be emailed to: email@example.com
Details of how responses should be formatted and technical details relating to submission are available on the webpage announcing the call for submissions.
Some time in the middle of last night, our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow.com was used to send its 100,000th FOI request. It was a simple one, made to the Queen Victoria Hospital NHS Foundation Trust.
WhatDoTheyKnow was launched in February 2008, with these aims: to make it easy to file a FOI request, and to keep a public archive of the requests and (more importantly) the responses received from public bodies. The Freedom of Information Act had been in force since 2005, but we wanted to make it fully accessible to people who were not journalists, lobbyists or professional operatives – it is a law that gives us all a right, not just those experts.
At base, mySociety is about giving people power to people who don’t believe that they have any way of affecting the world around them. Giving practical access to the right enshrined in this Act was and is a meaningful way of advancing that goal.
Then, thanks to a flash of inspiration from our late colleague Chris, we saw a great opportunity to increase the value created by the existence of the Act: we built a system that published the entire exchange of messages between users and public bodies online.
We believe that because of this decision to publish all exchanges with public bodies, WhatDoTheyKnow represents a very unusual phenomenon: a third-party web site that takes an existing piece of legislation and makes it better value for money for the taxpayer. Public money was already being spent answering FOI, but by running WhatDoTheyKnow we could magnify the value generated by each request by making it public, without requiring anyone who worked in a public sector to retrain, buy a new computer system or spend any new money.
And this theory turned out to be right. For every request made on the site, around twenty people come to read materials contained on WhatDoTheyKnow. The multiplier is remarkable, and one of the things that we think is most worth celebrating about this site.
WhatDoTheyKnow’s success is only possible because of a team of fantastically dedicated volunteers. These loyal enthusiasts have helped countless users, and do a simply amazing amount of maintenance work to keep the site friendly, helpful and effective. They are astonishingly talented, principled and knowledgeable, and mySociety owes them a debt of gratitude it will never really be able to pay back.
However, to give them a bit of the credit they deserve, and to highlight some of the countless uses of WhatDoTheyknow, we asked them to pick out some notable requests from the last four years.
Helen “The use of the site by campaign groups like the Campaign for Better Transport to find out about bus subsidy cuts as part of their save our buses campaign.”
John “There was the accidental release of how tax is applied to the Royal Family – which resulted in a Daily Mail front page story.”
Alex “This request about the Warmfront boiler installation scheme has a significant number of annotations. What makes it different is that the user patiently persisted with her original FOI requests, and then has carried on by continuing to help loads more people with details of how to complain and lobby for help and general warm encouragement.”
WhatDoTheyKnow is one of mySociety’s most visited sites, with one and a half million unique visitors in 2011. Like our other projects, it was built as an open source project. Thanks to the Open Society Foundation, we are in the process of making it much easier to re-deploy around the world, under the brand name ‘Alaveteli’. As we speak, there are sites based on our code in places as far apart as New Zealand, Kosovo, Brazil, and the EU, and we’re looking forward to helping people from around the world create more grandchild sites in the years ahead.
Our 100,000 request milestone comes at an interesting time for the Freedom of Information Act. It’s currently under scrutiny by the Justice Select Committee, who are investigating whether it works effectively and in the way that it was intended.
As you might expect, at mySociety, we’re passionate about the right to information. We’ll be submitting evidence to the Justice Select Committee to show just how vital FOI is to good government and a good society. If FOI has touched your life, you might want to do the same.
If you haven’t got a penny,
A ha’penny will do,
If you haven’t got a ha’penny,
Then God bless you.
We wish you all a merry and prosperous Christmas – and for those of you who are already feeling quite prosperous enough, may we point you in the direction of our charitable donations page?
mySociety’s work is made possible by donations of all sizes and from all sorts of people. Those donations help fund all the online projects we create; projects that give easy access to your civic and democratic rights. If that’s important to you, show your appreciation, and we promise we’ll make the best use of every penny.
Thank you for sticking with us through this month-long post. We hope you’ve found it interesting and we wish you the very merriest of Christmases.
We hope you’ll continue to follow us on Twitter, Facebook, or Google+ – see our Contacts page to find individual projects’ social media links.
What’s behind the door? A letter to Santa.
We think we’ve been pretty good this year. We’ve tried to keep our local neighbourhood clean, help with problems, and aid those in need, so we’re hoping there are a few presents coming our way.
If you can fit them down the chimney, here’s what we’re dreaming of:
More publicly available data Of course, we were delighted to hear in Mr Osborne’s autumn statement that all sorts of previously-inaccessible data will be opened up.
We’re wondering whether this new era will also answer any of our FixMyStreet geodata wishes. Santa, if you could allocate an elf to this one, we’d be ever so pleased.
Globalisation …in the nicest possible way, of course. This year has seen us work in places previously untouched by the hand of mySociety, including Kenya and the Philippines. And we continue to give help to those who wish to replicate our projects in their own countries, from FixMyStreet in Norway to WhatDoTheyKnow in Germany.
Santa, please could you fix it for us to continue working with dedicated and motivated people all around the world?
A mySociety Masters degree We’re lucky enough to have a team of talented and knowledgeable developers, and we hope we will be recruiting more in the coming year. It’s not always an easy task to find the kind of people we need – after all, mySociety is not your average workplace – so we’ve come to the conclusion that it’s probably easiest to make our own.
Back in February, Tom started thinking about a Masters in Public Technology. It’s still something we’re very much hoping for. Santa, is it true you have friends in academic circles?
FixMyTransport buy-in - from everyone! Regular users of FixMyTransport will have noticed that there are different kinds of response from the transport operators: lovely, fulsome, helpful ones, and formulaic ones. Or, worse still, complete refusal to engage.
Santa, if you get the chance, please could you tell the operators a little secret? Just tell them what those savvier ones already know – that FixMyTransport represents a chance to show off some fantastic customer service. And with 25,000 visitors to the site every week, that message is soon spread far and wide.
The Ministry of Justice have just published their latest quarterly statistics on the handling of Freedom of Information requests by central government bodies. We’ve crunched the numbers to compare them to the requests made using WhatDoTheyKnow.com
The graph shows our share of FOI requests sent to central Departments of State jumped to 14.6% in the 1st quarter of 2011.
This time round, the top 3 departments were:
- Home Office (which includes the UK Border Agency, CRB & Identity & Passport Service) – 254 requests out of 866 – 29%
- Department for Education – 81 requests out of 328 – 25%
- Department for Communities and Local Government – 59 requests out of 250 – 24%
Many of the WhatDoTheyKnow users contacting the Home Office & UK Border Agency are trying to find out information about their own immigration case. We regularly receive emails from applicants asking for help, as they have often been waiting months (or even years in some cases) for an official update to their case, often with the UKBA holding on to identity documents or passport. Applicants then feel they have to resort to making FOI requests. Many of these are auto-replied by this standard FAQ, and applicants don’t receive a personal answer. The large 29% share of all Home Office requests suggests that the normal contact methods to keep people updated aren’t working or even that their service is simply struggling with demand. It’s also likely that they don’t consider these types of requests as formal FOI requests, so it is worth noting that we are likely to be slightly overstating the percentage share figures.
Free schools were a popular topic for the Department of Education – 9 out of 81 requests were on this subject, and nearly all were refused on the basis that information would be published at some unspecified date in the future.
To understand the limitations of the data analysis, please see here.
One interesting trend that has been consistently seen is that FOI requests are more frequent in odd-numbered quarters compared to even ones – if you have any ideas why this may be the case, please add them to the comments!
|- Communities and Local Government
Member of the National Secular Society Robert Christian used mySociety’s Freedom of Information site, WhatDoTheyKnow to ask all 227 English NHS “provider” Trusts about how much they spend on chaplaincy.
On the 28th of February 2011 the results of his research were published in an article on the National Secular Society website (full report [PDF]). He found that £29m of NHS funds were used to pay chaplains in 2009/10 and also observed a wide variation in the amount, as a fraction of total spend, that specific trusts were spending on chaplaincy.
The publication of the research prompted a number of articles in the UK media. eg. (Daily Mail, The Independent, The Mirror).
Mr Christian has commented:
“To have identified the right FOI contact for every provider NHS Trust in England would have been daunting if not impossible. I doubt that my study would ever have got off the ground without WDTK. I particularly valued the way that the site tracks which Trust has and has not yet responded. I liked the capability to thank each FOI lead after they had responded.”
The fact that making requests via WhatDoTheyKnow allowed Mr Christian to cite the source of his raw data was important to him. He added:
“The transparency of the raw data is, I think, one of the main strengths of the WDTK website for three reasons. First, I was able to hyperlink every piece of data back to its source – and that meant that it was easy for colleagues from the NSS to check the accuracy of the data (with so many Trusts a transcription error was always a possibility). Second, it ensured that if anyone had wanted to challenge the accuracy of the data they could be directed to see that the study was simply quoting the Trusts’ own information. Third, it means that the data is there for future reference to see if there are any changes over the coming years.”
mySociety and WhatDoTheyKnow are non-partisan and don’t get involved in campaigning except in specific areas relating to openness and transparency. We take no view on issues such as how much, if anything, the NHS ought be paying for chaplaincy. However we welcome campaign groups making use of our services.
WhatDoTheyKnow currently has around 2-4 “bulk requests” per month made via its site. At the moment we don’t provide any mechanism to make bulk requests automatically. We are considering adding such a system, for requests which have been sanity checked by the WhatDoTheyKnow team. The provision of such a system would probably be associated with a mechanism for preventing other “bulk requests” from being made without the site administrators’ explicit approval.
Making the requests is only a small part of the work involved in a study such as that carried out by Mr Christian. Chasing public bodies for responses, as well as collating and analysing the information released is likely to be much more time consuming than submitting the requests themselves. This is something Mr Christian agrees with, stating:
“If enquirers are not prepared to individually contact each organisation to ask the question, I would doubt their commitment to retrieve and analyse the information (as that is actually a much bigger task)”.
Clearly any facility for enabling requests to be made in bulk will have to incorporate safeguards to ensure responsible use.
Whereas Mr Christian has been happy to conduct his research in public, and still been able to generate media coverage following publication, we are aware that many campaign groups, and others such as journalists, like to make Freedom of Information requests in private.
Mr Christian has commented on the issue of “scoops” and the effect of conducting his research in public:
“The question of ‘scoops’ is an issue for journalists and in fact this problem did happen in this case. Someone appears to have trawled the WDTK know site and noticed what I was doing. A short piece was run by the Daily Express before we completed and published the study. So clearly this might be an issue. But the risk of a spoiler being run will tend to be low when the number of organisations being contacted is large. This is because the amount of work needed to collate and analyse the data is enormous and so casual trawling will show only that a question is being asked – not what the conclusions are.”
In order to get as great a fraction of the total number of FOI responses available on WhatDoTheyKnow we have also been considering an option for making requests in private, for a fee. The idea would be that once the findings were published then the FOI response could be opened up to the public providing access to the source material backing up the story.
Any views on our ideas for the future and on the way WhatDoTheyKnow has been used for this, and similar, research would be welcome in the comments below.
The Government is currently proposing to reform the UK’s defamation laws. The WhatDoTheyKnow.com team has responded to the consultation on a Draft Defamation Bill currently being run by the Ministry of Justice.
The bill proposes extending and clarifying the list of types of material subject to “privilege” ie. which can be published without fear of being sued for defamation. “Matter published by or on the authority of a government or legislature anywhere in the world” is already covered but we have been advised that might not extend to all Freedom of Information responses; if it does or not is something which is yet to be tested in court.
We are asking for the law to be clarified and for “privilege” to be extended to a fair and accurate report or summary of, copy of or extract from material released by public bodies. The proposed new provision would enable the republication of Freedom of Information responses from public bodies without fear of libel action. Such a provision would clearly be of value to services such as WhatDoTheyKnow.com. It would also allow campaigners, journalists and others working with such material more freedom from legal threats and uncertainty; as such this addition would appear to be in-line with the coalition’s stated aims of their amendments to libel law.
We would rather see Parliament explicitly clarify the law rather than see a journalist, campaigner or website operator be subjected to an expensive and time consuming legal action.
We have also suggested:
- That the principle that any governmental body should be open to uninhibited public criticism, and therefore should not be able to use or threaten use defamation law to quash critics ought be extended to apply to all public bodies and those, such as contractors, acting on behalf of public bodies.
- That merely pointing to defamatory material, through the provision of a weblink, ought not in itsself be actionable where there is no express endorsement of the defamatory material along with the link.
The full consultation response can be read online at FOIWiki
Earlier today the Department for Education, which is headed by Education Secretary Michael Gove, wrote to WhatDoTheyKnow to let us know that the main email address they use to receive FOI requests is to be phased out. They would prefer the public to make their FOI requests via the contact form on their own website instead or even by post. We believe that this approach is contrary to the spirit of the law and principles of Freedom of Information.
The message we received stated:
We changed the way that people contact our department last year, encouraging customers to go to our website to find what they are looking for and submit an enquiry via our contact us page (www.education.gov.uk/contactus) if they could not locate information.
The [main FOI] mailbox that your system points to ([email]) will eventually be phased out and I would be grateful if you could advise customers using your website to refer to www.education.gov.uk/contactus if they need to contact the Department.
We certainly agree that people should check whether the information they are looking for is already available before submitting a FOI request — and indeed we already prompt all users of WhatDoTheyKnow to do so, not just for the Department of Education, but for every public authority we list.
When requests are submitted through WhatDoTheyKnow responses are automatically published ensuring a lot more information ends up online and publicly accessible than when submitted privately. If the Department for Education wants to reduce the amount of correspondence it gets in relation to already published material it should be encouraging people to make their FOI requests via WhatDoTheyKnow. Already, based on Ministry of Justice statistics, we calculate around 10% of all Freedom of Information requests to the Department of Education are made via our service.
We have asked the department to let us know which alternative email address they would prefer us to forward FOI requests to, and we await their reply. We are happy to use whichever email address is easiest for a public body.
We have also made clear that we will continue to offer our users the ability to make requests to the Department of Education via our site and will not be removing that facility and directing people to the department’s contact form as we were asked. Forms often include unnecessary mandatory fields that the FOI legislation does not require (in the DfE’s case they ask what kind of a requester you are, making you specifically type in “prefer not to say” into an “Other” box if you want to opt out).
The law rejects the idea that public bodies are allowed to erect artificial barriers like this, and we have noted that a FOI request is valid regardless of which email address or member of staff within an organisation it is sent to.
I recently found these requests by James Muldoon covering FOI statistics for the London Boroughs for 2009. As we regularly carry out analysis of WhatDoTheyKnow’s percentage share of FOI requests to central Government Departments of State, I thought it would make for an interesting comparison to do the same for the 33 Metropolitan borough councils, plus the City of London.
Below is a graph of the market share for WDTK.
Overall, the share for 2009 was 8.1%. During the year, the share did fluctuate quite a bit, and the requests on WhatDoTheyKnow were significantly lower in the 2nd quarter for some reason.
Q1: Jan-Mar 2009 – 9.4%
Q2: Apr-Jun 2009 – 5.1%
Q3: Jul-Sep 2009 – 9.5%
Q4: Oct-Dec 2009 – 8.3%
The City of Westminster has a much higher number of FOI requests compared to the other boroughs, mostly apparently due to a large motorcyclist parking campaign/protest. 73% of all requests made to Westminster via WhatDoTheyKnow in 2009 contained the words “parking”, “motorcycle” or “Verrus” (203 out of 278).
I will soon start looking for FOI statistics for Local Authorities outside London, either on WDTK, or via their disclosure logs. The Ministry of Justice encourages Local Authorities to regularly publish statistics on their FOI data.
- Brent - excluded from totals & comparison as the underlying FOI request is still outstanding. The ICO is apparently investigating.
- Camden - Q1-2009 data excluded from totals & comparison due to partial refusal to the FOI request by Camden (FOI Act Section 12, costs of complying too high)
- Southwark - excluded from totals & comparison. They said in their FOI response: “due to a serious malfunction of our reporting database we have no access to the data stored centrally”. The data has been re-requested by James to see if the malfunction has been fixed.