An article in the current Private Eye Magazine has drawn our attention to the use that disability campaigner John Slater is making of our Freedom of Information service WhatDoTheyKnow.com.
In December 2016, Mr Slater asked the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to release the monthly “management information reports” received from contractors ATOS and Capita in relation to their work assessing eligibility for Personal Independence Payment benefits.
Mr Slater has pursued his request for over a year, and wasn’t put off by an initial response which stated that the information requested wasn’t held, nor a subsequent response refusing to release the material citing the contractors’ “commercial interests”.
In December 2017, a year after Mr Slater made his request, the Information Commissioner ordered the DWP to release the material, stating “The Commissioner has not been satisfied that disclosing the withheld information would be likely to damage the commercial standing of ATOS and Capita”. The Information Commissioner dismissed the DWP’s concerns that the information requested could be “misinterpreted in ways that could lead to reputational damage to both the Department and the PIP Providers as well as prejudice the efficient conduct of public affairs”.
The Information Commissioner’s decision notice was highly critical of the way the DWP had handled the case, noting the use of “standard paragraphs” rather than a discussion of the public interest tailored to the material in question, and DWP failing to engage promptly with the Information Commissioner, thus causing further delay.
The DWP have not yet complied with the Information Commissioner’s decision; they have appealed and a tribunal hearing is scheduled for April 2018.
This request is far from the only one showing Mr Slater’s persistence in pursuing the release of information held by the Department for Work and Pensions.
A request for Project Assessment Review Reports for the Universal Credit Programme that Mr Slater made in April 2016 was initially accepted and the department said they were considering it. Mr Slater chased up the lack of a response in June, and again in August and September, but when, six months after his original request, Mr Slater chased them again in October they deemed his persistence to be vexatious and rejected the request.
That request has now been further rejected by the DWP, who say that the information “if released would, or would be likely to, prejudice the free and frank provision of advice or which would otherwise, or would be likely otherwise to, prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs.”
Mr Slater has referred that decision to the Information Commissioner too.
On the 5th of December 2017, Debbie Abrahams MP, the Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, deployed the Parliamentary procedure of a motion for “an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty” to seek the release of the documents to the Work and Pensions Committee. MPs agreed the motion unanimously.
The committee chair, Frank Field MP, has suggested that:
A couple of copies would be made. These copies will be kept securely and members would be invited to come to the Committee office to read them. No-one else, other than the committee members, will be invited to make this journey to our Committee office and members will not be able to make copies, or take notes, about the documents.
– so despite the decision by the House of Commons the public still might not get to see the material via that route.
Mr Slater has been in touch with us and told us he finds the service provided by WhatDoTheyKnow extremely helpful when submitting and managing FOI requests.
He said that the ease of submitting requests and built in workflow that keeps track of time, reminding users that a response should have been issued, is invaluable. He also likes that a single platform exists where information obtained by its users is made available for everyone, as that embodies the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act.
We’ve just listed Sustainability and Transformation Partnerships on our UK Freedom of Information service WhatDoTheyKnow.com. These new bodies bring together NHS organisations and local councils with the aim of better co-ordinating health and care services in England (see NHS England’s webpage introducing them).
In most parts of the country Sustainability and Transformation Partnerships are unimaginatively named. In a few places though the bodies have been more adventurous: we have the bold and strident sounding Success Regime Essex, as well as Together We’re Better in Staffordshire, Transforming Health and Social Care in Kent and Medway, Joined Up Care Derbyshire and one called BOB.
Some of these bodies appear to be just coming into being, with almost nothing about them online at all and others are more established with staff, websites, boards and published meeting minutes. When researching these organisations we found a handful offered Freedom of Information contact addresses, and commendably Kent and Medway’s even has a log of responses it has already made to FOI requests.
Most Sustainability and Transformation Partnerships will be subject to Freedom of Information (FOI) law as all their members are public bodies. Some may not be subject to FOI though, for example Surrey Heartlands Sustainability and Transformation Partnership appears to have private company Virgin Care as a member, exempting it from the relevant definition; we list the body on WhatDoTheyKnow anyway as part of our activism seeking to expand the scope of the law.
What information will a Sustainability and Transformation Partnership hold?
A few partnerships publish their key governance documents (constitutions, terms of reference, memoranda of understanding), and minutes and papers from their boards; these can give an insight into the organisation’s activities and reading them may suggest information which could be made public via a Freedom of Information request. If the basics of board minutes, and governance documents aren’t published you can use WhatDoTheyKnow to get them online and easily for everyone to access.
FOI responses from Kent and Medway show large sums of money being paid to “consultants/external advisory firms” to develop a Sustainability and Transformation Plan and hint at bodies elsewhere doing similar. Freedom of Information requests could be made to partnerships elsewhere to ask for information on their budgets and spending.
It is anticipated that Sustainability and Transformation Partnerships may “evolve” into “Accountable Care Organisations” ACOs, responsible for all public healthcare in a region; this would make them immensely important public bodies.
We’ll keep an eye on the organisational changes and try to keep our service up-to-date.
Maintaining the database of public bodies is a key part of running WhatDoTheyKnow; we have to react to reorganisations in the public sector, and bodies forming, merging, changing their names or ceasing to exist.
NHS Sustainability and Transformation Partnerships on WhatDoTheyKnow
- Alliance Local Delivery System (Warrington, St Helens, Halton, and Knowsley)
- Better Care Together – Leicester, Leicestershire & Rutland
- Birmingham and Solihull Sustainability and Transformation Partnership
- Bristol, North Somerset, South Gloucestershire Sustainability and Transformation Partnership
- Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire and Berkshire West Sustainability and Transformation Partnership
- Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Sustainability and Transformation Programme
- Cheshire and Wirral Local Delivery System
- Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly Shaping Our Future Transformation Board
- Coventry and Warwickshire Sustainability and Transformation Partnership
- DDT, Hambleton, Richmondshire and Whitby Sustainability and Transformation Partnership
- Devon Sustainability and Transformation Partnership
- Dorset Sustainability and Transformation Partnership
- Frimley Health and Care Sustainability and Transformation Partnership
- Greater Manchester Health and Social Care Partnership
- Hampshire and the Isle of Wight Sustainability and Transformation Partnership
- Healthier Lancashire and South Cumbria
- Herefordshire and Worcestershire Sustainability and Transformation Partnership
- Hertfordshire and West Essex Sustainability and Transformation Partnership
- Humber, Coast and Vale Sustainability and Transformation Partnership
- Joined Up Care Derbyshire
- Lincolnshire Sustainability and Transformation Partnership
- Milton Keynes, Bedfordshire and Luton Sustainability and Transformation Partnership
- Norfolk and Waveney Sustainability and Transformation Partnership
- Northamptonshire Sustainability and Transformation Partnership
- North East London Sustainability and Transformation Partnership
- North London Partners in Health and Care.
- North Mersey Local Delivery System
- Northumberland, Tyne and Wear Sustainability and Transformation Partnership
- North West London Joint Health and Care Transformation Group
- Nottinghamshire Sustainability and Transformation Partnership
- One Gloucestershire Sustainability and Transformation Partnership
- Our Healthier South East London
- Shropshire and Telford and Wrekin Sustainability and Transformation Plan Partnership Board
- Somerset Partnership
- South West London Sustainability and Transformation Partnership
- South Yorkshire and Bassetlaw Sustainability and Transformation Partnership
- Success Regime Essex
- Suffolk and North East Essex Sustainability and Transformation Partnership
- Surrey Heartlands Sustainability and Transformation Partnership
- Sussex and East Surrey Sustainability and Transformation Partnership
- The Black Country Sustainability and Transformation Partnership
- Together We’re Better (Staffordshire)
- Transforming Health and Social Care in Kent and Medway
- West, North and East Cumbria Sustainability and Transformation Partnership
- West Yorkshire and Harrogate Sustainability and Transformation Partnership
About six million people a year visit mySociety’s Freedom of Information website WhatDoTheyKnow.com; there are well over 100,000 registered users, and over 385,000 requests have been made via the service.
Of course, it’s fantastic that WhatDoTheyKnow is so well used, but the growth and popularity of the site brings its own challenges, not least the day-to-day admin that keeps the site running.
Many aspects of the site’s operation are run by volunteers, supported by mySociety’s staff and trustees — and due to the site’s success we’re looking to expand the volunteer team.
What does volunteering involve?
The work is pretty varied, but there are some frequent and recurring tasks:
Dealing appropriately with requests to remove material from the website
This is one interesting challenge which arises fairly often. Sometimes these requests are from public bodies who’ve released information they didn’t mean to; and they can also come from individuals and companies who are named in correspondence on the site.
These decisions are not always as black and white as you might expect. Some recent examples where we had to carefully consider the balance on both sides were:
- Material which Transport for London were concerned could be used to steal a tube train. We considered: was this a genuine risk? Was our publication really increasing the risk? Was the information already available elsewhere? What was the potential value of publishing the information to tube staff and their representatives, travellers and the wider public?
- Sainsbury’s were concerned that published material didn’t reflect their corporate policy on “workfare”. That may have been the case, but we asked ourselves whether that made it inappropriate to continue to publish the information that had been released. Additionally, where did the public interest lie? What legal risks were there arising from continued publication?
Responding promptly and accordingly to accidental releases
Thankfully, the frequency with which public bodies accidentally release personal information in bulk via Freedom of Information responses is decreasing, but the WhatDoTheyKnow team still have to act promptly when this does occur.
We often help users on both sides of the FOI process. For requesters, we can answer questions about FOI and how to use it, and we also work with the staff of public bodies who are at the receiving end of requests.
And all the rest
There’s always more that can be done to promote the service, draw attention to interesting correspondence on the site, and lobby for improvements to our access to information laws.
The wider team at mySociety help people around the world to establish and run their own online Freedom of Information services; and new features are being added to the UK site to make it more attractive to professional users such as journalists and campaign groups. Volunteers have the opportunity to get involved in these activities, helping steer the direction of new projects, based on their frontline experience of being a site administrator.
Keeping the database of thousands of public bodies up to date is another challenge, especially given the frequency of reorganisations in the UK’s public sector.
We work primarily by email, with regular video conferencing meetings, and occasionally meet up in person.
As a volunteer, you can decide how much time you put in, and what aspects of running the service you decide to take part in — but ideally we’re looking for people who can spare at least an hour or two, a couple of days a week.
We understand that people’s external commitments vary over time, and of course, there’s a flexible approach if a team member needs to step away for a stretch now and then.
What makes a good WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer?
There’s one characteristic that all the WhatDoTheyKnow volunteers have in common: a belief in the value of Freedom of Information, or, more widely, the expectation of transparency and accountability from the bodies which citizens fund.
As for practical skills: perhaps you’ve been involved in moderating discussions on the web, or have experience with access to information, defamation, or data protection law. Or perhaps you have, or would like to gain, experience dealing with “customers” by email.
Primarily we’re looking for people capable of making good judgements, and who can communicate clearly online.
Before joining the team, new volunteers will have to agree to follow our policies covering subjects such as security and data protection. That said, part of the role may be, if desired, taking a part in developing and refining these, and other, policies as the service grows and changes.
How to apply
If helping us run WhatDoTheyKnow sounds like the kind of thing you’d be interested in doing, then please do apply to join us.
We only have the capacity to bring on and train a few volunteers at a time, and it is important that those chosen to help administer the service are trustworthy and committed to its policies, direction and non-partisan stance. For these reasons, we are recruiting volunteers via a formal application process.
To apply please write to us before the 20th of March 2017, introducing yourself, and letting us know about any relevant interests or experience you have.
What do we offer in return?
As a volunteer, the main reward comes from the satisfaction of assisting users, making good decisions, and helping run what is fast becoming a key part of the country’s journalistic and democratic infrastructure.
Volunteers may be invited to mySociety events and meet-ups, providing a chance to take part in discussions about the future direction of the service and the organisation’s activities more generally. There have been a number of conferences held, where those running Freedom of Information sites around the world have got together to share experiences: one or more volunteers may be invited to join in, with travel expenses paid.
Other ways to help out
If volunteering to join the WhatDoTheyKnow team isn’t for you, perhaps there’s something on mySociety’s Get Involved page that is — or you could:
Image: MarkBuckawicki [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
Here, in both video and quotes, are a few selected highlights from our speakers; including some of their lovely remarks about the work mySociety does.
Speaking about The Content Mine
mySociety is one of the most wonderful things to have come out of the bottom-up democratic movement in the UK and the UK is a shining light for the rest of the world. I’ve used WriteToThem on many occasions…. It just makes the whole business of contacting your representative so much easier. And I’ve also used a lot of WhatDoTheyKnow FOI requests and again it’s absolutely brilliant. It makes the difference between doing it and not doing it.
We’re going to liberate one hundred million facts per year from the scientific literature and we’re going to put them in Wikipedia or rather WikiData and we’re working closely with WikiData.
What’s happened this year is the UK Government has pushed through copyright reform and it has given exemptions to copyright … We’ve got the law. The law hasn’t been tested. I am allowed to do it according to the law for non-commercial purposes. Elsevier says I can’t because they can stop me doing it under the law and we had a big public fight in London.
Speaking about TheyWorkForYou.com
The thing I work on particularly on TheyWorkForYou is the statements we write on each MP’s page on how they voted. … This will be the first time we’re going into a general election in this country where the sitting MPs’ voting records are comprehensively easily accessible to the electorate.
It’s really important to us that we’re impartial and non-partisan. So one of the things we had to think about when we were doing this was how do we even decide what topics to cover because we could be accused of being partisan just by what we decide to draw attention to. … Not all MPs attend all votes by any-means so we can use MPs’ own attendance at votes to give them some kind of ranking of importance.
Everything that I do is available under an open licence so as long as you attribute where it has come from you can use it and do what you like with it. And hopefully people will do stuff with it as we run into the election.
Mike Soper and Hendrik Grothuis
Speaking about Cambridgeshire Insight
If you think about something like FixMyStreet you can see where that application has had a very positive impact on local government, on councils.
The idea is that pressure will come from the great British public at a local level to hold public sector organisations to account. In order to hold people to account you need information.
Professor Shepherd several years ago realised, because he was a medical professor, that he was looking at facial injuries of people who had been injured by having beer glasses shoved in their faces during fights and recording meticulously the detail of these physical and working out that if you change the composition of the beer glass you can drastically reduce the severity of the injury.
We’re getting support at a national level for the sort of work we are doing and the sort of line about trying to encourage openness and promote open data here in Cambridgeshire. We’re getting national support for that.
Videos of full talks, including Q&A:
- Peter Murry-Rust on The Content Mine. (Transcript)
- Richard Taylor on TheyWorkForYou’s voting records.
- Mike Soper and Hendrik Grothuis of Cambridgeshire Insight. (Mike has also published his slides)
An analysis, with code and data, of which Commons votes would have had different results, if Scottish MPs’ votes hadn’t been counted since 1997.
By Richard Taylor and Anna Powell-Smith.
PublicWhip is a wonderful thing. Founded and still run by independent volunteers, it contains the results of every House of Commons vote since 1997, scraped from the official web pages and presented as simple structured data. Here at mySociety, we’ve used it to power TheyWorkForYou for many years.
Most recently, it helped our staffer Richard create the new voting analyses on TheyWorkForYou’s MP pages. Want a quick, simple summary of your MP’s voting history on same-sex marriage or climate change, or on any of 62 other major issues? You’ll now find the answer on your MP’s TheyWorkForYou page, all based on PublicWhip data.
But here’s the most exciting thing about PublicWhip. If you know how to get around its slightly forbidding exterior, it contains a treasure-trove of data on MPs’ voting patterns, all structured, openly-licensed and ready for anyone to analyse.
A data challenge
Recently, while discussing the upcoming Scottish referendum, Richard posed a question to Anna: could PublicWhip data tell us which House of Commons votes would have had different results, if Scottish MPs’ votes hadn’t been counted?
This is interesting because if the Scottish people vote “yes” to independence on September 18th, we may see (probably not as soon as 2015, but perhaps soon thereafter) a House of Commons without Scottish MPs. No-one really knows how such a Parliament would be different.
While it was widely reported that that Scottish MPs’ votes carried the decision to introduce student tuition fees and foundation hospitals in England, those were just two high-profile votes. To our knowledge, no-one has published a comprehensive analysis of all votes that were carried by the Scottish MPs.
Anna chose to accept Richard’s challenge, and to use PublicWhip data to carry out this analysis. You can see all their code, and the data they produced, on GitHub.
The headline finding is that only 21 votes (out of nearly 5000 since 1997) would have gone differently if Scottish MP’s votes hadn’t been counted. This surprised Anna, who expected more.
Secondly, if there’s any visible pattern, it’s that English MPs seem to have a stronger civil-libertarian bent than their Scottish counterparts. High-profile votes on 42-day detention, “glorifying terrorism”, allowing the Lord Chancellor to suspend inquests, and on control orders: according to Anna’s analysis, all would have gone differently if Scottish MPs had not been in the chamber.
Other than that – Anna comments – the key finding is perhaps the absence of any other strong trend.
Here is the full list of votes that would have gone differently – click on the date to see the full vote details on PublicWhip. If Scottish MPs hadn’t been in the chamber:
- 5 Sep 2014 The majority of MPs would have voted to send the Affordable Homes Bill to a Select Committee rather than a Public Bill Committee.
- 29 August 2013 The majority of MPs would have voted to agree that a strong humanitarian response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria was required from the international community, and that it may, if necessary, require military action. (You may remember that David Cameron called MPs back from their summer break to vote on this, and MPs rejected the motion.)
- 29 Jan 2013 The majority of MPs would have voted against postponing a review of the boundaries of parliamentary constituencies until 2018 and against delaying a review of the effect of reducing the number of MPs.
- 31 Oct 2012 The majority of MPs would have voted against calling on the UK Government to seek a real-terms cut in the European Union budget.
- 24 Apr 2012 The majority of MPs would have voted to require products containing halal and kosher meat to be labelled as such.
- 24 Feb 2010 The majority of MPs would have voted for restrictions on the amount of carbon dioxide electricity generation plants are permitted to emit.
- 9 Nov 2009 The majority of MPs would have voted against allowing the Lord Chancellor (a minister) to suspend an inquest and replace it with an inquiry and against allowing the use of intercepted communications evidence in inquests.
- 8 Dec 2008 The majority of MPs would have voted to immediately starting the proceedings of a committee of MPs to investigate the House of Commons procedures in light of the seizure by the police of material belonging to Damian Green MP.
- 12 Nov 2008 The majority of MPs would have voted to require membership of new regional select committees to be determined taking account of the proportion of members of each party representing constituencies in the relevant region and for at least one member from each of the three largest parties to be on each committee.
- 11 Jun 2008 The majority of MPs would have voted against extending the period of police detention without making any criminal charges of terrorist suspects from 28 days to 42 days.
- 2 Jun 2008 The majority of MPs would have voted to require the National Policy Statement to contain policies which contribute to the mitigation of, and adaptation to, climate change.
- 15 Mar 2006 The majority of MPs would have voted against a proposed timetable for the Parliamentary consideration of the Education and Inspections Bill.
- 2 Nov 2005 The majority of MPs would have voted against making glorifying the commission or preparation of acts of terrorism an offence.
- 2 Nov 2005 The majority of MPs would have voted to make the offence of Encouragement of Terrorism only apply to cases where an individual intended their actions to encourage terrorism.
- 28 Feb 2005 The majority of MPs would have voted to give a greater role to the courts in relation to the imposition of control orders.
- 22 Apr 2004 The majority of MPs would have voted against installing a security screen separating the public gallery from the House of Commons Chamber.
- 31 Mar 2004 The majority of MPs would have voted against the introduction of variable university tuition fees (top-up fees) of up to £3,000 per year in place of the previous fixed fee of £1,250 per year.
- 27 Jan 2004 The majority of MPs would have voted against allowing university tuition fees to increase from £1,125 per year to up to £3,000 per year, and against making other changes to higher education funding and regulation arrangements.
- 19 Nov 2003 The majority of MPs would have voted against introducing NHS foundation trusts, bodies with a degree of financial and managerial independence from the Department of Health.
- 4 Feb 2003 The majority of MPs would have voted for an 80% elected House of Lords.
- 29 Oct 2002 The majority of MPs would have voted against starting sittings of the House of Commons on Tuesdays at 11.30am rather than 2.30pm.
In the 1997-2001 Parliament, Anna’s code found no votes that would have had different results.
IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER! We can’t conclude that all of the above would necessarily have become law if Scottish MPs had not been in the chamber. Bills don’t become law until they have passed through the House of Lords – not to mention the many other forces of history that would have acted differently.
Get the code and the data
You can see the code used for this analysis, and the full datasets, on GitHub. You can adapt it yourself if you want to do your own analyses.
This analysis is the work of one volunteer: we welcome any corrections. Like PublicWhip itself, the whole point is that it is out in open for anyone to analyse and improve.
Image by Catherine Bebbington. Parliamentary copyright image reproduced with the permission of Parliament.
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:
- Making public appointments.
- Being substantially publicly funded (this is not a sole reason we would consider an organisation a public body)
- Controlling public assets.
- Having a public regulatory function, including controlling access to trades and professions.
- Controlling significant national infrastructure.
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.
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.
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.