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: firstname.lastname@example.org
Details of how responses should be formatted and technical details relating to submission are available on the webpage announcing the call for submissions.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- The Royal Opera House
- The National Theatre
- English National Opera
- The Southbank Centre
- Birmingham Royal Ballet
- City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
- London Symphony Orchestra
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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.