1. WhatDoTheyKnow Responds to Libel Reform Consultation


    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.

    Additional suggestions

    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

  2. Department for Education Doesn’t Want FOI Requests Made Via WhatDoTheyKnow

    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.

  3. Some FOI stats on local authorities

    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.

    Data caveats

    • 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.
  4. Minister Demands Full Transparency for all Publicly Funded Arts Bodies

    Today’s Sunday Times carries an article on very high salaries paid to some of those working in the “publicly funded arts world”. The article reports Antonio Pappano, the Royal Opera House’s Music Director, is paid more than £630,000 a year and is given four months a year off to carry out a second job as music director of a Rome orchestra.

    While the Sunday Times’ paywall means we don’t have a direct link to their article; it appears to be based on much the same information as an article published a few days earlier by The Arts Desk.

    The Sunday Times article states the Government has “expressed surprise at the sums paid” and Ed Vaizey the Culture Minister is quoted as saying:

    “There really must be full transparency for all publicly funded arts bodies”.

    There is also a statement from the Arts Council expressing a similar, though more limited, sentiment:

    “Anybody in receipt of significant public money should be transparent about their core funding costs”.

    The Arts Council, the main body which distributes public funding to the arts, is subject to the Freedom of Information Act. The Arts Council is listed on mySociety’s Freedom of Information website WhatDoTheyKnow.com which enables people to easily make requests for information in public. While the Arts Council is responsible for handing out the money, it does not necessarily know the details of how the recipient organisations spend it. The bodies which receive funds are not themselves yet subject to freedom of information law, irrespective of how much public money they receive or how dependent they are on that subsidy.

    While it may take the Minister some time to legislate to ensure “full transparency for all publicly funded arts bodies” we are happy to add such bodies to our site on request right now, so our users can ask them, in public, about their activities.

    As of today the following organisations are now listed on our site:

    We use the WhatDoTheyKnow site to actively campaign for expansion of Freedom of Information to cover more public organisations. We list a number of bodies not formally subject to FOI some of which are present on the grounds they are substantially publicly funded.

    For some time we have listed the British Board of Film Classification, a key arts regulatory body which is not subject to freedom of information law, and the British Film Institute; the latter two bodies are funded by the DCMS directly so Minister Ed Vaizey may well be able to get them to voluntarily comply with FOI legislation first thing on Monday morning.

    A particular set of arts funding bodies which some of our users have made us aware they would like to see subject to the act are the UK Screen Agencies (eg. Film Agency Wales) which distribute public funds to the film culture sector.

    Please contact the WhatDoTheyKnow team if you have any suggestions for further bodies which you would like to see us list on our site.

  5. ICO “Line to take” documents

    In January 2007 the Information Commissioner’s Office disclosed via FOI 28 “line to take” (LTT) documents (pdf).  These are topic-based documents, produced by their Policy Team, and they are used internally by their case workers as how they interpret and apply the various sections of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and the Environmental Information Regulations 2004.

    They are mostly based on Information Tribunal rulings which have set a legal precedent, or relevant ICO decision notices, but for some topics they are based on the ICO’s own interpretations of the FOI Act, indicating how they’re likely to handle the subject matter of these complaints.

    For someone looking to appeal a particular FOI decision made by a public authority (eg a refusal to provide information due to an exemption in the FOI Act), these LTTs are a very useful addition to the FOI guidance already produced by the Ministry of Justice or the ICO.  They can be used to verify whether the authority’s stance is appropriate, and allow the requester to point the authority toward how the ICO sees that particular topic, and therefore challenge a FOI decision.

    Although I’m a volunteer for WhatDoTheyKnow, I occasionally make FOI requests in a personal capacity. As I only recently found the above LTTs from 2007, I therefore asked the ICO for an updated list of LTTs.  These have now been provided, and there is now a big library of 177 LTTs.  They sent them via 6 large PDF files, so I have made them available in a more structured, searchable and (hopefully) easier to use manner via FOIwiki.com which is maintained by some of the WDTK volunteers:

    http://foiwiki.com/foiwiki/index.php/LTT

    In addition to the master list of LTTs available via the link above, they can also be accessed in context with their associated FOI Act exemption page, eg Section 41: Information Provided In Confidence

    Two items of note from the LTTs.

    • They may not always be 100% up to date. E.g LTT47 (last updated in 2007) says “it should be noted that the Time for Compliance Regulations do not extend to schools in Northern Ireland” – this was fixed via legislation passed last year (SI 2009/1369)
    • There are a few LTTs which set out that the ICO disagree with a particular Information Tribunal ruling, and that they would approach the complaint in a different way, e.g LTT119 or LTT168. These could present a problem with making a relevant FOI complaint

    I hope you find them useful!  All comments or suggestions welcomed.

  6. WhatDoTheyKnow’s Share of Central Government FOI Requests – Q1 2010

    The Ministry of Justice recently released the latest statistics on freedom of information implementation in central government for the first quarter of 2010.  We can use this data to roughly calculate the share of FOI requests made via mySocety’s Freedom of Information website WhatDoTheyKnow.com.

    According to the Ministry of Justice 6,857 requests were made to “Departments of State” between January and March 2010, of which 707 were made via WhatDoTheyKnow – a 10% share.  Defra and DCSF had the highest percentage of WhatDoTheyKnow requests in the first quarter, at 23% and 24% respectively.  We have made the departmental breakdown of the statistics for the past two years available as a Google Spreadsheet.

    Precise calculations of the percentage share are not possible, due to the way each department defines a valid request.  For example, some FOI requests to the UK Border Agency (included in Home Office data) or the FCO made via WhatDoTheyKnow would not have been counted as FOI requests, but instead as “routine requests for information”, falling outside the scope of data collection for the statistics produced by the Ministry of Justice.  In addition, requests for data readily available (i.e. exempt under Section 21 of the Freedom of Information Act) are not counted either by the MoJ, but will be included in the WhatDoTheyKnow statistics.  Overall, these form a minority of requests made by WhatDoTheyKnow, so the percentage share we quote is fairly accurate.

    WDTK share of central departments’ FOI requests

    WDTK share of central departments’ FOI requests

    The graph shows that the total numbers and percentage of requests have been fairly consistent over the past year, around 10-13%.  Share of requests increased significantly during 2008 as the site grew in popularity following its launch.

    The large increase in total FOI requests between Q4 2008 and Q1 2009 may partly be due to the increased popularity of WhatDoTheyKnow and also increased visibility of Freedom of Information to the general public through more mentions of FOI law in the media.  Key stories in the press included Jack Straw’s veto against disclosure of the Iraq War Cabinet Minutes and Parliament’s aborted attempt to hide details of MPs’ Expenses. Requests made via WhatDoTheyKnow accounted for around 20% of the total increase in FOI requests.

    It’s worth bearing in mind that the above graph only covers the 22 central Departments.  WhatDoTheyKnow.com lists over 3,750 authorities including local government councils, police forces, NHS Trusts, non-ministerial departments and many more, and also covers Scotland’s public authorities. There is no national monitoring of how many FOI requests are made to such bodies, or how well they perform when responding to requests.

    In total, 6,565 requests were made via WDTK in the first quarter, 87% of which were to non-central Departments.  It’s unlikely that the site will ever get full coverage as the majority of FOI requests originate from companies carrying out market research, journalists, political parties and charities, most of whom prefer to make requests in private in order to maintain exclusivity over the released data.  WhatDoTheyKnow would like to include these companies in future, possibly by offering a managed FOI service on a fee basis, including an embargo period prior to the released information being made fully available on the internet – more information is available from the WhatDoTheyKnow team.

    Articles based on previous statistics releases:

  7. UK Parliament Delays FOI Responses by Claiming it Doesn’t Exist

    On Monday the 12th of April 2010 Parliament was formally dissolved in advance of the forthcoming general election. This has prompted some interesting, and rather bizarre, responses to the Freedom of Information requests which have been made to the House of Commons and House of Lords since dissolution. Each such request made via mySociety’s Freedom of Information website WhatDoTheyKnow.com has received a standard reply stating:

    When Parliament has been dissolved there is no ‘House of Commons/Lords’ for the purposes of Part 1 of Schedule 1 to the 2000 Act, and there is therefore no ‘public authority’ to which the 20 day deadline under section 10 of the 2000 Act is capable of applying. The time limits do not, therefore, apply during the period of Dissolution.

    The effect of the 2000 Act, including its time limits, resumes when the new House of Commons/Lords first meets.

    Requests which were due to receive a response during the period parliament is dissolved have had their “clocks” stopped, with notices saying:

    As your request was received before the House dissolved, the 20 working day time limit of your request will be split, ceasing on 12 April 2010 and resuming on 18 May 2010 when the new Parliament first meets.

    As mySociety’s Freedom of Information website WhatDoTheyKnow automatically publishes requests, correspondence and responses online it’s not just the requestors who can see those responses, anyone can.

    During the 2005 election according to the UK FOI blog Parliament placed a notice on its website saying it had consulted with the Information Commissioner and agreed the procedure for extending the time limit for a response.

    Clearly the Houses of Parliament still have staff employed and people are still acknowledging the FOI requests. While both houses have stopped meeting, the institutions behind them must surely still be operating, and to claim they have ceased to exist is bordering on the utterly ludicrous.

    Are the staff who would otherwise be in a position to respond to requests for things like viewer statistics for the Parliament Live TV stream, content of the Commons’ Intranet or cost of the Parliament Education Service not at their desks at the moment? If they are who’s employing them? Who’s paying them? While it is presumably a busy time for those staff preparing for a new intake of MPs; you might think that without MPs and Lords around it may be a quite time for many staff who might want to use the opportunity to catch up with correspondence like FOI requests. Perhaps in the midst of all this rather British oddness we should be happy that at least the parliament website hasn’t been turned off at this time of peak interest in the nation about parliament and our democratic system.

    WhatDoTheyKnow already has to be aware of public holidays and follows some rather complex rules when it comes to calculating deadlines for responses however we have decided against updating the system to deal with this new and unexpected situation. We don’t think it is right that the institution of Parliament should consider itsself not to exist during an election period. We still be marking FOI requests as “late” when the twenty working day statutory time limit has expired regardless of the odd stance being taken by Parliamentary officials.

  8. TfL Criteria for Assessing Congestion Charge Appeals Available via WhatDoTheyKnow

    It seems Transport for London (TfL) really didn’t want anyone to be able to get hold of their internal guidelines describing how they deal with congestion charge appeals. Now though, thanks to mySociety’s freedom of information site WhatDoTheyKnow anyone wanting to find out in what circumstances TfL will cancel a congestion charge penalty can read the document detailing TfL’s criteria themselves.

    I believe there are basic principles involved here; we all ought be able to find out what the law is, both “in statue” and “in practice”; it is right that we can find out the detailed rules which are being applied to the application of the congestion charge in London. I think that this request, enabling that, has been an excellent use of the Freedom of Information Act; it also shows how using the access to information laws can redress the balance of power between the citizen and the state.

    The Road User Charging (Enforcement and Adjudication) (London) Regulations 2001 (the law) describes six circumstances in which someone served with a Penalty Charge Notice relating to the London Congestion Charge can make representations against it. However in practice TfL are in-fact allowing representations on a much wider basis. Now the internal document is available it can be seen that even the detailed: “Helping you with your Congestion Charging Penalty Charge Notice” information sheet offered by TfL does not contain the full details of what is and is not accepted as a valid reason for not paying the congestion charge.

    Members of the public can now find out that TfL is happy to waive the congestion charge for those who are travelling “to register a death or travelling to hospital due to death of relative”, as long as proof of the death is provided, but not for someone who is “travelling to attend a funeral”. The document also suggests TfL won’t waive the charge if your vehicle has a breakdown and is recovered while the charge is operational; but the charge will be waived if, as a result of being clamped by a local authority, you have to collect your car from within the zone. Reassurance that TfL won’t pursue you for your congestion charge after you’re dead (assuming someone proves you’re really dead to TfL) is also provided.

    There is a wealth of detail in the document, including revelations that foreign military vehicles are subject to the charge, but UK ones are not; along with details of circumstances where people will be given a second chance ie. their first appeal will be allowed but second and subsequent ones will not.

    The public availability of this document may well make TfL’s life easier; some people may no longer bother making appeals in circumstances where they know they’ll be rejected and others will be able to phrase their appeal letters in such a way that it makes it easy for TfL staff to assess them against their criteria and accept them.

    Request Details
    Transport for London (TfL) is responsible for the London Congestion Charge. A document entitled: “Criteria for dealing with Representations and Appeals” describes the procedure TfL staff use to determine if someone’s appeal against a congestion charge penalty will be be accepted or rejected. This document was the subject of a Freedom of Information request made January 2008 which was initially refused. The argument TfL made against disclosure was that releasing the document would prejudice the exercise of TFL’s functions; Freedom of Information Act exemptions under S.30 (Investigations and proceedings conducted by public authorities) and S.31 (Law enforcement) were claimed.

    On appeal the information commissioner’s office issued a decision notice saying it agreed with TfL that “the public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighs the public interest in disclosure”. The individual who had requested the document was persistent, and took his case to the information tribunal; there the information commissioner’s decision was overturned and TfL were ordered to release the document. The tribunal ordered the document be released to the original requestor by the 23rd of December 2009. A WhatDoTheyKnow.com user had made a separate request for the same document on the 8th of December 2009, and received it on the 7th of January 2010.

    TfL still have not placed the released document on their disclosure log, which is perhaps an indication they’re still not too keen on the fact they’ve been compelled to release it.

  9. WhatDoTheyKnow Beats Parliamentary Question

    Many MPs and Lords use the Freedom of Information Act to obtain information from public authorities despite the fact they are able to table parliamentary questions. Occasionally they make their requests via mySociety’s freedom of information website WhatDoTheyKnow.com which ensures both the request, and its response, are freely available online. Surprisingly the freedom of information route can result in the release of more, and better quality, information than a written Parliamentary Question.

    For example on the 12th of November 2009 Eleanor Laing the Conservative Shadow Minister for Justice submitted the following written Parliamentary Question:

    To ask the Secretary of State for Health how many staff in his Department were employed on the management of freedom of information requests submitted to his Department in each year since 2005; and how much his Department spent on the management of such requests in each such year.

    The response contained the number of staff per year as requested but with respect to the spending the parliamentary response stated: “The information requested on expenditure could be provided only at disproportionate cost.”

    A very similar request for information had been made many months previously, in July, by WhatDoTheyKnow.com user and FOI campaigner Heather Brooke. The response to the FOI request contained more information, and more precise information, than Eleanor Laing had obtained via her parliamentary question. When the request was made via WhatDoTheyKnow how much staff substantially involved in answering requests were paid was disclosed, in detail.

    While the costs of complying with a particular request are capped by regulations under the Freedom of Information Act, data on total costs of FOI compliance such as that released by this request allows the average costs of dealing with a request to be calculated.

    MPs using WhatDoTheyKnow

    Do let us know in the comments if you’ve spotted any more!