Camilla Graham Wood is a Legal Officer at Privacy International, an organisation advocating and litigating for stronger protections of citizens’ privacy, dignity, and freedom.
At AlaveteliCon, Camilla presented on PI’s ‘Neighbourhood Watched’ campaign against the deployment of new technologies by police forces in the UK, many of which are unknown to the general public — and unrestricted by current regulation.
These include facial recognition, hacking, mobile phone extractions, and predictive policing: all examples of the police harnessing new technology with the aim of becoming more efficient — but where PI see great risks for the loss of liberties and for mistakes to be made. Freedom Of Information has been a crucial tool in their efforts to uncover the facts.
An initial tip-off
We asked Camilla how the organisation had first become aware of these technologies.
“It’s hard to find out about technologies if the state doesn’t want you to know about them.”
“We were contacted by investigative news co-operative Bristol Cable, who had looked into police accounting records and seen reference to Cellebrite, an international company well known for selling mobile phone extraction technology”.
Mobile extraction allows the police to download all content and data from a phone. At AlaveteliCon, Camilla explained, “They fit a device, about the size of an iPad, to your phone and it will copy across everything on there. This was rolled out, without any announcement, around the London Olympics.
“Obviously you might have concerns around police accessing the material that’s on your phone at that time, but there are also ongoing implications — for example if you don’t change your password afterwards, they then have access to all your various accounts on an ongoing basis — they can access your email, social media etc.
“So we decided to take Bristol Cable’s investigation further, and that led to the use of FOI to uncover the extent that this technology was being used, particularly for low level crimes.
“We anticipated this would show whether it was being used on a wide scale by frontline police officers. And it is”.
Neither confirm nor deny
“New surveillance technologies are radically transforming the ability of police and intelligence agencies to monitor our civic spaces.”
That may sound like a simple result: put in some FOI requests, get the information back. In reality, though, it has not been quite so easy. “The state often does not want to say when they’re using specific technologies, so they will use the ‘neither confirm nor deny’ response. It’s hard to find out about technologies if the state doesn’t want you to know about them.
“We sent FOI requests to all 43 police forces in the UK in January 2017 to find out which were using this technology in relation to low level crimes. We then sent follow-up requests later in the year. A large number of the forces responded that this second request was vexatious, largely because we had already asked questions about other forms of surveillance such as predictive policing, facial recognition and social media monitoring. They said that because we had already asked about what new technologies they were using, our FOI request on mobile phone extraction was vexatious.
“This meant that we had to request individually to each force to conduct an internal review, then subsequently a review by the Information Commissioners Office. But we were, at least, successful in this challenge”.
Camilla explains that although PI eventually received these responses, a number of them had had to restrict the amount of information provided due to time and cost limits. That in itself revealed something pretty telling — an inability to audit the use of mobile phone extraction. “It appears that the data is held on individual files, so they could not tell us how many victims, witnesses and suspects had been subject to this technique”.
The work hasn’t all been adversarial though. At AlaveteliCon, Camilla explained how she had attended police conferences as a speaker. Though a little daunted, she found that she was warmly welcomed by officers who wanted to know more about how they could better answer FOI requests.
Facial recognition, body cameras and predictive policing
“PI is particularly concerned about technologies that police can, and sometimes do already use to monitor people who have not committed nor are suspected of any crime.”
What are the other devices and methods in use that the public may not be fully aware of? Camilla highlights body cameras which can be switched on or off by the police officer wearing them, and the footage from which can be used in tandem with facial recognition.
Then there are IMSI catchers, which imitate a mobile phone mast and are able to monitor your location and activity. Also of concern are predictive policing methods, which raise all kinds of issues around biases that are baked in to the system — Beryl Lipton from Muckrock in the US is also doing work around this, and we’ll be writing about that in a further post soon.
Should we be worried?
Reading about such technologies, one might dismiss any concerns — after all, police have a job to do, and it’s natural that they should be using the latest advances in tech to do so. Camilla spells out why we should apply a little more judgement:
“FOI is one of many options we’ve used to discover information about what the government is doing, often in secret. It can be one of the few means to find out that information.”
“New surveillance technologies are radically transforming the ability of police and intelligence agencies to monitor our civic spaces and collect, categorise, store, analyse, and share our personal data. These authorities are expanding the depth and breadth of their surveillance of our civic spaces (by that I mean real life spaces like public streets, parks and squares, as well as digital spheres including the internet, messaging apps, and social media platforms), often without sufficient legal basis or democratic input and oversight.
“While new technologies may be deployed under the guise of protecting democratic society, without adequate regulations and safeguards those technologies can threaten democratic participation and dissent — and thereby undermine democracy itself.
“PI is particularly concerned about technologies that police and intelligence agencies can, and sometimes do already use to monitor people who have not committed nor are suspected of any crime”.
Freedom of Information is the key to transparency
“People have a right to transparency around the technologies that are being used; they have a right to question whether there is any justification for the deployment of these tools”
So, time to deploy our right to information, something that every UK citizen enjoys. How useful has FOI been to the campaign?
“FOI is one of many options we’ve used to discover information about what the government is doing, often in secret.
“It can be one of the few means to find out that information. As far as I am aware, there was nothing published on the use of mobile phone extraction by the police. The public were unaware the scale that this was being used.
“As a result of our FOI activity, this has been brought into the open”.
Taking it further
But PI’s activity and the wider repercussions of the campaign don’t stop there. “Based on these findings, we published a report.
“We’ve also written to the Investigatory Powers Commissioner stating that we believe the use of this technology may constitute hacking or interception.
“We have complained to the Information Commissioner that the tech is in breach of the old and new data protection act — that complaint is still under investigation. We’ve also given evidence to the Law Commission in relation to their consultation on the use of search powers; an investigation was commenced by the Scottish Parliament into the use of this technology by Police Scotland; and we’ve trained lawyers to raise awareness about this technology.
“Our work has even informed the debates around the use of this technology against rape survivors and we have raised concerns about the relevant issues to digital forensics”.
You can get involved
Now PI hope to get the general public mobilised in protesting these affronts to our privacy. “We hope to see people challenge their local police force on the use of these technologies. As we approach the local elections next year and in particular the election of Police and Crime Commissioners, we would encourage individuals to use the materials in our Neighbourhood Watched campaign and write to their local representatives to ask what new technologies are being used against local residents.
“People have a right to transparency around the technologies that are being used; they have a right to question whether there is any justification for the deployment of these tools and to ask what safeguards and protections are in place to protect against misuse and abuse”.
PI are now keen to replicate the Neighbourhood Watched campaign in other countries, to help create more transparency and accountability around these technologies.
Finally we asked Camilla whether she had advice for those involved in sometimes difficult investigations such as this. She had just three words: “Persistence is key”.
Image: Phil Hearing
Vouliwatch is a platform for Greece which strives to make democracy more accessible for all. If you’re familiar with mySociety’s projects, it might be easiest to see it as a mixture of TheyWorkForYou (it publishes MPs’ votes); WriteToThem (making it simple for citizens to contact their representatives), and a campaign for more transparency and better oversight in the country’s parliament, often using Freedom of Information toward these aims.
This year, Vouliwatch found themselves in the extraordinary position of issuing a lawsuit to their own parliament. Their Managing Director Stefanos Loukopoulos explained how it all happened, in his presentation at AlaveteliCon.
He left us with quite the cliffhanger — would the case go to court or not? — so we were keen to catch up and find out how it had all resolved. But to begin with, here’s what he told us back in October:
“In Greece, there’s an independent committee known as the “Committee of Control”: it’s made up of judiciary, ombudsmen, and three MPs sit on it as well.
“Its role is to audit and check asset declaration and the finances of MPs, as well as the financial activities of political parties.”
As you’re probably aware, over the last eight years Greece has been in the grips of a massive financial crisis, losing more than 25% of its GDP. Stefanos says, “It’s a situation unknown anywhere else in history.
“The two parties who were in power during the period that led up to the crisis owe, between them, over 350 million Euros to the banks, the majority of which is unserviceable.”
So, that’s the background. And now to the nitty gritty of the case.
“Every year the Committee of Control put out a report. For the last three years it has said exactly the same thing: ‘Some political parties’ have taken public funding which was supposed to be for research, and used it for operational purposes. However, the report doesn’t go into detail of which political party, or how much money.
We were accused of trying to destabilise democracy. We think that actually, democracy is more harmed by hiding this information!
“The Committee has the power to impose sanctions, and the law is quite clear on this point: if funds are not being used for what they should be, or are stated to be used for, then they need to be returned… but year after year, these powers weren’t used and nothing was done about it.
“We believe people have the right to know what’s happened to this public money. We sent letters, but in return we were just accused of trying to destabilise democracy. We think that actually, democracy is more harmed by hiding this information!”
“After two years, we finally submitted a formal FOI request. We didn’t expect an answer (and we didn’t get one) but at least we were covered by FOI law, so we knew exactly what information we should have been entitled to. After consulting with a law specialist we decided to take Parliament to the constitutional court. This is the first time anything like this has ever happened.”
And so that was how Vouliwatch ended up issuing a lawsuit to their own parliament. The day Stefanos was telling this tale at AlaveteliCon, things had started to move. He said:
“The legal team at Parliament have suggested just today that the information we asked for has actually been released, but I haven’t received it yet. I’ll keep you updated. I’d love to take them to court really, it would create a far bigger buzz and perhaps open more people’s eyes to what FOI is and how it can work to expose malpractice.”
So, of course, when catching up with Stefanos a few weeks later, we were keen to know: was the information released, or did they get to go to court?
“In brief, yes, the information was released, so there was no court appearance after all.”
But the effort was still worthwhile on many fronts. The information was, Stefanos says, shocking:
If it wasn’t for our FOI request and our appeal to the Constitutional Court, no-one would have ever heard about it.
“The current ruling party Νέα Δημοκρατία (New Democracy) — which, by the way, owes give or take 142,100,000 Euros to the Greek banks (and it should not be forgotten that the banks have been practically recapitalised by the taxpayer on a number of occasions during the crisis) — has been using the state subsidy intended solely for educational and research purposes to repay its loans, for at least two consecutive years. This amounts to about a million Euros.
“The Committee of Control had actually detected this malpractice, but did not impose any sanctions — and worse, actually tried to conceal the story. If it wasn’t for our FOI request and our appeal to the Constitutional Court, no-one would have ever heard about it.”
There’s more detail on the whole tale on the Athens Live site. But getting the story out to the wider population has been a struggle, says Stefanos:
“Unfortunately the media landscape in Greece is very problematic, to say the least. All the big mainstream media groups belong to a handful of oligarchs (shipping tycoons, mainly) who have historically had close ties to the traditional political parties, New Democracy and PASOK.
“So, unsurprisingly perhaps, our story was covered only by independent media or left leaning newspapers and was totally ignored by all the big media groups.”
Of course it’s daunting to take your own Parliament to court. But the prospect of facing a court case is also exciting at the same time.
But there have been some visible results from Vouliwatch’s hard work.
“The new president of the committee publicly pledged that they would be stricter during the next auditing process.
“So that’s a positive outcome, but I must say that he didn’t mention anything about adding more details in the next report (which should be published by the end of the month so we are really looking forward to seeing what it will look like).
“Meanwhile, we got in touch with the parliamentary groups of various parties (except for New Democracy of course) asking them to table a parliamentary question on the issue. The only one that took it up was Μερα25 (Mera25), which is the Greek branch if you like of the Democracy in Europe Movement Diem25, and is led by Yanis Varoufakis. The (oral) question was posed in Parliament during its plenary session and the shadow minister of the interior tried to justify New Democracy’s actions by using legally unfounded arguments.
“We countered/deconstructed these in a reply and published it out — and Μερα25 is going to use it in their comeback question.”
And as for Vouliwatch’s day in court? It’s not entirely off the table, though now to the Committee of Control rather than Parliament as a whole: “Currently we’re drafting a lawsuit against the committee for breach of duty and will submit it to the relevant attorney general.”
This sort of work matters in Greece, and not only to uncover malpractice. Even if it’s hard to get mainstream media coverage, it all helps to highlight people’s right to information and how FOI can be used. But Stefanos says it’s not easy:
Our case proves that FOI does have a strong role to play in the fight against corruption/lack of transparency
“FOI in Greece is, unfortunately, virtually non existent. Despite the decent legal framework around it, citizens and journalists alike are unaware of their rights and how to exercise them — and the state (as well as public authorities/institutions in general) have failed to communicate it or make it easy for the public to use.
“I think our case proves that FOI does have a strong role to play in the fight against corruption/lack of transparency in Greece; however, one may be easily dissuaded and disappointed because in most cases one needs to resort to litigation in order to get a response.
“In other words, we took the case this far because it’s part of our work as an organisation. I doubt that a citizen or journalist would follow the same strenuous course as we did, bearing in mind the costs of litigation, the time required, the legal research etc, etc.”
Is it daunting issuing a lawsuit to government?
“Yes, of course. But the prospect of facing a court case is also exciting at the same time. If we were ordered to pay out a large amount in reparations it would be close to catastrophic for our organisation. However, our case was legally airtight and the chances of losing it minimal, which is why Parliament decided to back off and release the information in the end.”
Bravo Vouliwatch — and we’ll be watching future happenings with great interest.
Stefanos Loukopoulos is the managing director of Vouliwatch and spoke at AlaveteliCon in October 2019.
At the time of writing, a No Deal Brexit seems ever more likely. What exactly will that mean for the UK?
Attempts to answer this question have filled many column inches, hours of broadcast and endless tweets. There is certainly no lack of opinions.
But opinions are best based on facts, and it was in this spirit that WhatDoTheyKnow user Jon Rush set out to request vital information about the key Brexit sticking point, and the main reason that a deal is so hard to agree — the Irish border.
Brexit and the border
As Jon explains, “Brexit creates serious problems for the current arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland under the Good Friday Agreement because they depend heavily on both the UK and RoI being in the EU”.
He wanted to gain access to the results of a mapping exercise, referred to in a joint report from the EU and UK negotiators but not available to the public at that time, which assessed the level to which co-operation between the North and the South depends on the EU frameworks currently in place.
Crucial information, you might think, for the general public who will be so affected at every level by whatever type of Brexit we enter into. Jon certainly thought so — but getting hold of it would set him on a long journey.
A hard-won result
Jon’s initial request, to the department for Exiting the EU (DEXEU) was in December 2017. You can follow its long and complicated journey on that page, thanks to Jon’s detailed annotations.
FOI is one of the few tools that individuals can use to hold government to account and it’s important to use it — otherwise government will never take transparency seriously.
Simultaneously he was requesting the same information via our partner AccessInfo’s site, AskTheEU.com, which covers EU authorities — and meanwhile, MPs in the UK’s Exiting the EU Select Committee requested the same information on numerous occasions throughout 2018, but were repeatedly rebuffed by government.
Pursuing his right to information would take Jon via the ICO, the European Ombudsman and to the brink of a tribunal, but in the end, the report was indeed released into the public domain.
What was revealed
What did it tell us?
“It contains a description of each area relevant to North-South cooperation under the Good Friday Agreement together with an assessment of how far it is underpinned by EU legal and policy frameworks.
“The focus in the media has tended to be on trade/customs arrangements, but if you go through the mapping exercise, you find that many other areas of cooperation are underpinned by the EU membership, including transport links, water, waste management, energy, Irish language broadcasting, mobile roaming, invasive species, disease control and cross-border police cooperation.
“Overall, 96 out of 142 different areas covered by the mapping exercise were found to be supported by EU legal or policy frameworks (with well over a third being “directly underpinned or linked”, ie EU membership is particularly significant).
“This shows that any workable solution is likely to involve the UK committing to quite a close relationship with the EU, at least in the areas identified as crucial to North-South cooperation”.
A lack of transparency
The release of this information was a positive result — but Jon believes that the government has been far from open during the whole Brexit process.
“To be properly informed about Brexit, we need access to information which is often available only from government. It would be very difficult for an organisation outside government to produce something like the mapping exercise because it requires input from numerous experts across different areas and in some cases, access to information that only government is likely to have.
“Government is therefore uniquely well placed to provide this information – but if government refuses to share it, it’s impossible to get the full picture.
“In my view, the government’s approach to its own documents concerning Brexit has been to release as little as humanly possible, arguing that disclosure would undermine its negotiating position with the EU.
“I accept that occasionally, information may need to be withheld for this reason. But it is equally if not more important that people can understand what Brexit will mean for them — and I don’t think the government has paid anywhere near enough attention to that issue”.
This was not Jon’s first experience using FOI: in fact, he had recently exercised his rights to information on another Brexit matter.
“I asked DEXEU for details of the scope and timetable of their consultation on leaving the EU. This was after David Davis (who was then Secretary of State for Exiting the EU) had told Parliament in September 2016 that the government would be consulting widely on the options for leaving the EU.
WhatDoTheyKnow.com has made the process quite easy to initiate and it also means that others who might be interested in the same information can find your request.
“By late October, nothing had been published, so I made an FOI request through WhatDoTheyKnow.
“Initially, DEXEU told me it had this information but refused my request, saying that it planned to publish the information at a later date. I didn’t see why the information couldn’t be published sooner and complained to the ICO.
“Their investigation showed that DEXEU did not have a formal plan or any formal process for the consultation — which explained their somewhat evasive response.
“DEXEU should probably have told me that it didn’t hold the information I had requested – but to do so would have involved effectively admitting that it didn’t have a plan or any formal process for consultation. You can make up your own mind by reading what the ICO had to say here”.
Pursuing a refused response
But back to the Irish border request. When Jon didn’t receive a response from DEXEU, and after requesting a similarly fruitless internal review, he took the next step and referred the matter to the ICO. They ruled against disclosure in a decision that Jon believes was ill-founded:
“The ICO decision was based on section 35 of the FOI Act, which relates to information produced for the purposes of policy formulation.
To be properly informed about Brexit, we need access to information which is often available only from government.
“It is certainly true that the mapping exercise was produced to inform the government’s thinking about Brexit and Northern Ireland. However, it was a summary of the current arrangements, not a discussion of what the future policy options should be; as such, it was essentially background information, which is usually regarded as less sensitive. Section 35(4) makes it clear that there is a particular public interest in the disclosure of background of information – and case law makes it clear that such disclosure can take place before the final policy has been formulated, as I was requesting here.
“The ICO also argued that disclosure of the mapping exercise would have a “negative effect on discussions” with the EU and “create a distraction to discussions” — but its decision did not explain how this would occur, especially given that the mapping exercise had been shared with the EU.
“When I put these points to the ICO as part of my appeal to the tribunal, it accepted that the mapping exercise was background information but argued that it should be treated in the same way as discussion of policy options. It was unable or unwilling to provide any further explanation of the supposed negative effects of disclosure and suggested that this was a matter for DEXEU to explain. I was (and remain) very concerned by this because the ICO is supposed to be an independent regulator; it should not simply be taking what government says at face value but should be questioning it and satisfying itself that what government says is actually correct”.
And so Jon referred the matter to tribunal.
But in June of this year, two of the key documents he was requesting were finally released by the government, and he decided to drop his appeal to tribunal, for reasons which you can read in his annotation of the time.
While many WhatDoTheyKnow users are determined and driven, it’s also true that others would be easily defeated by an initial refusal, not to mention the further rulings. So what gave Jon the will and tenacity to carry on?
I would encourage people to use FOI … if you are prepared to persevere and be patient, you can get what you want.
“I knew that appealing to the tribunal would involve quite a lot of time and effort on my part, but I wasn’t prepared to just let this go for two reasons. Firstly, FOI depends on having an effective regulator which is prepared to question government robustly — and if people like me just shrug our shoulders when that doesn’t seem to have happened, then nothing will ever improve.
“Secondly, Brexit is going to take many years to sort out and there will be many more occasions where people want to use FOI to get information out of government; unless challenged, government will just continue to refuse to disclose information whenever it suits it to do so.
“Appealing to the tribunal was a new experience for me. I am a lawyer by profession, which probably helped, but I am not an expert in FOI, nor am I a litigator — and I did feel at times that my lack of familiarity with those areas was a handicap. So I have a lot of respect for people who are not lawyers and take cases to the tribunal on their own.
“I would encourage people to use FOI and I think that what happened with this request shows that, if you are prepared to persevere and be patient, you can get what you want — even in a situation like this where MPs had asked repeatedly for exactly the same information and hadn’t received it.
“FOI is one of the few tools that individuals can use to hold government to account and it’s important to use it — otherwise government will never take transparency seriously. WhatDoTheyKnow.com has made the process quite easy to initiate and it also means that others who might be interested in the same information can find your request.”
Jon is also planning to submit a complaint to the ICO about its handling of this case, including the time taken to deal with it:
“Although it was expedited, it still took over six months, whereas my complaint to the European Ombudsman (which concerned essentially the same material) was dealt with in about half that time.”
He intends to post a link to the complaint in a further annotation on the FOI request page on WhatDoTheyKnow – so watch this space!
Many thanks to Jon for taking the time to talk to us about his long and involved pursuit of information, which despite the delays will still help to inform the UK public at this critical time in our country’s history.
In 2016, Theresa May described modern slavery as “the great human rights issue of our time”. “These crimes must be stopped,” she said, “and the victims of modern slavery must go free”.
But words alone do not ensure results, it seems. The data mapping project After Exploitation has discovered that a sizable number of vulnerable victims of human trafficking and modern slavery are — far from ‘going free’ — actually being held in UK detention centres with a view to deportation.
Our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow played a vital part in the project’s research, both in helping identify what data was available, and in bringing about its release.
One result of his many recommendations was the employment of ‘Detention Gatekeepers’ — independent overseers who check the status of detainees, and that they are legitimately held. If they are found to be in this country as a result of human trafficking or modern slavery, they should be offered help via the National Referral Mechanism.
We spoke to Maya Esslemont, founder of After Exploitation, to learn how the use of WhatDoTheyKnow has helped uncover the true numbers of those who have been let down by this system, information which the government had previously denied that they held.
She told us:
“Through FOI requests, we uncovered the number of potential and recognised victims of human trafficking who have been deported since 2016 or detained in 2018.
“This completely needless and unjustifiable use of detention on vulnerable people, for whom there was never any realistic chance of removal, demonstrated huge failures in Detention Gatekeeping, the process meant to prevent vulnerable people from being detained.”
Maya explained that, prior to these findings, a gap in the publicly-available data impeded any understanding of the number of vulnerable detainees:
“Although the Government releases quarterly statistics outlining the number of ‘potential’ victims of trafficking, very little is known about the number of recognised victims who are later deported, detained, or left at risk of re-trafficking due to a lack of safehousing. Our project hoped to demonstrate the scale of these issues”.
FOI seemed like the obvious route to uncovering these figures, says Maya, in part because it was clear where the information must be held, if it existed:
“The Home Office oversees both immigration enforcement and victim support and recognition. This is a clear conflict of interest, but it did mean that we knew all the outcome information must be held in the same place.”
The group found that by checking the archive of previous FOI requests published on WhatDoTheyKnow, they could discern exactly what data existed, and more importantly, could cite prior responses as proof of its existence.
“As suspected, but denied until now, the Home Office holds highly specific, readily available information on immigration, detention and deportation outcomes of trafficking victims.
“We knew from Parliamentary correspondence that some trafficking victims’ asylum outcome data was held as far back as 2015, but nobody had any idea that such readily available data on the actual detention existed.
“When we trawled through Home Office FOI requests submitted by others on WhatDoTheyKnow, it was clear that information on detainees’ vulnerability was held — and it was after we referenced these previous request outcomes, dated since 2016, that the Home Office started providing data on trafficking specifically.”
We were most interested to hear this, as it further justifies one of WhatDoTheyKnow’s key features – that all requests and responses are published online. We talk a lot about how this can make the information accessible to wider numbers of people, but here is an example of that archive going on to inform a further set of requests, bringing about important results.
And visibility wasn’t just useful in helping the campaign discover the existence of the vital data, but also, Maya believes, provided an extra incentive for the Home Office to release the information in accordance with the FOI Act:
“I submitted a fair few FOI requests privately, but most received a rejection. However, since moving the same requests to a public platform, we’ve found that a majority have been fulfilled.
“Many charities and journalists may be tempted to submit FOI requests privately so that the responses can be ‘saved’ for exclusive research or stories, but this exercise seemed to prove that it can be more effective to ask for information as publicly as possible.”
(We should mention that our WhatDoTheyKnow Pro service does allow for the private submission of requests which are then published at a later date — although there’s no requirement to submit privately. Pro users can enjoy the best of both worlds, using the organisational features and the batch request functionality, and making requests in private or in public according to which strategy they find most effective.)
Having uncovered this crucial data, After Exploitation has worked with other organisations to get their findings more widely known:
“The charity Women for Refugee Women managed to secure a debate in Westminster Hall on the detention of trafficking victims. As part of this debate, MPs discussed research by their organisation and by After Exploitation.
“Political interest in this issue should be commended, but the Immigration Ministers’ response was very concerning. Caroline Nokes MP claimed that the use of detention on 507 potential trafficking victims was justified, as many were recognised during the time they were in detention.
“However, we believe the fact that hundreds of vulnerable people were deemed suitable for detention in the first place is deeply worrying.”
The research gained wider attention, too:
“MPs and journalists at the Guardian, Sky News, Independent Online and Thompson Reuters picked up our research paper Supported or Deported?.
“In response to the findings, 23 NGOs signed our open letter asking for greater data transparency on human trafficking support outcomes, and for an end to Home Office involvement in vulnerability screening and trafficking decision-making. A week later, Diane Abbott MP tabled an urgent question in Parliament asking the government about the detention of exploited people.
“However, the Government response showed how much work is left to do. The Immigration Minister dismissed the Government’s own data as not robust enough to provoke change, whilst also using this same data to clear its reputation on the length of detention.
“This response shows how much harder we have to work before the Government will commit to data transparency, and the way victims are treated.”
We asked Maya what she hoped others would take from the experience of After Exploitation.
“I hope journalists, activists and academics will submit their own FOI requests to contribute to public understanding of human trafficking, modern slavery, and other forms of exploitation such as forced marriage.
“When it comes to human trafficking victim support, there are still so many gaps in our understanding — such as health, wellbeing and legal outcomes. We’re already taking another request to the Information Commissioner’s Office after a rejection on cost grounds, but we hope the ongoing struggle to secure information on trafficking will encourage others to do the same.”
We congratulate the project on what they’ve achieved to date and hope it will act as inspiration to others who seek to uncover injustice or malpractice within our systems.
In a strike for transparency, journalist Jenna Corderoy has secured the release of documents from the European Research Group (ERG), the pro Brexit lobby of which Jacob Rees-Mogg is a prominent member.
For more than a year, Jenna has been striving to ensure that the facts around Brexit — and the funding that drives it — reach the public domain: she also broke the now-infamous revelations about Vote Leave’s campaign overspending.
The release of material such as this into the public domain is beneficial to all, as it means that public debate is based on facts rather than conjecture. FOI can be a vital tool in ensuring that the documents shaping our society’s future direction are available for scrutiny.
On this latest release, a piece by Jenna and Peter Geoghegan reports:
“The ERG is part-funded by subscriptions paid out of MPs’ parliamentary expenses. As a consequence the group has to supply samples of its research for scrutiny to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority [IPSA] to ensure public money is being properly spent and not used for party political campaigning.”
Using WhatDoTheyKnow Pro — our service for professional users of FOI, which among other features, allows users to hold off from putting request correspondence in public until a story has been published — in January 2018 a request was made to IPSA to see these materials.
The request’s WhatDoTheyKnow page is now public. IPSA initially argued that the release of these materials was exempted under section 43 of the FOI Act as it would prejudice the commercial interests of the ERG, whose research is ordinarily available only to those paying a £2,000 annual subscription.
Subsequently Jenna referred this refusal to the Information Commissioner, who upheld the decision. Determined that the public has the right to see the research, Jenna and Peter did not leave the matter there, taking it to an information tribunal.
The tribunal made the final decision that the material must indeed be released, vindicating the effort and determination Jenna put into pursuing this request and stating that to make the documents available would:
“further transparency, accountability and public trust with respect to the working of Parliament”.
As a result, the documents will be made available on 11 July — keep an eye on OpenDemocracy for news of their release — and we’ll make sure we update the annotations on the original request as further details unfold. Meanwhile, you can see the full tribunal decision here.
Image: Udur Akdemir
Using WhatdoTheyKnow Pro, this project pieced together a nationwide dataset, and generated important stories at both national and local levels.
Sold from Under You, a project from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, revealed how much publicly-owned property has been sold off across England, as a response to austerity measures. In all, TBIJ discovered that over 12,000 buildings and pieces of land have been disposed of, bringing councils revenue of £9.1 billion — some of which has been spent on staff redundancies.
In collaboration with HuffPost, the findings were presented in the form of an interactive map which allows users to explore sales in their own area.
The investigation required a significant amount of data collection via FOI requests to 353 councils, work which was aided by WhatDoTheyKnow Pro. More than 150 people across the UK, including local journalists, took part in the collaborative investigation. As well as HuffPost’s coverage, stories were run in regional news outlets across the country. The project has now been shortlisted for the Data Journalism awards.
We spoke to Gareth Davies from TBIJ to understand how the organisation approached this ambitious project, and what part WhatDoTheyKnow Pro played in it. Here’s what he told us:
“The Bureau has been investigating the local government funding crisis in the UK for the last 18 months. The initial part of this particular investigation focused on the overall financial health of local authorities and used data to determine which were under the most pressure. We then wanted to look at the impact of the funding crisis so teamed up with Hazel Sheffield and her Far Nearer project to look at the public spaces that were being lost as a result.
“At the start of the investigation we undertook a research period to determine what local authorities are required to publish about the buildings and land they own, and how many of them were adhering to those rules.
“We discovered that while councils have to publish annual lists of the assets they own, this does not include vital information such as who assets were bought from or sold to and the prices paid.
“Also, two thirds of councils update the same spreadsheet each year, meaning change over time is lost. As a result it became apparent that FOI would be required to obtain the information we were interested in. FOI is a tool we have used for a number of stories, particularly those produced by our Bureau Local team.
“The information we wanted could be divided into two groups: what assets councils were buying and selling, and what they were doing with the money raised when an asset is sold. The research period showed we would need FOI to obtain this data.”
More than 700 FOI requests
“To reduce the risk of requests being refused for exceeding the cost/time limit, we needed to submit two separate requests to each of the 353 local authorities in England.
“Previously I had submitted and managed bulk FOI requests via email. However, staying on top of more than 700 requests would have proven very challenging. I was aware of the WhatDoTheyKnow Pro platform but hadn’t used it before, so thought this would be the ideal opportunity to test it out.
I don’t think I would have achieved that without WhatDoTheyKnow Pro
“It was useful to have up-to-date contact details for each authority and to be able to send the FOI requests in one go. But probably the most useful feature was the way in which WhatDoTheyKnow Pro tracks the status of each request and shows you when the public body in question has exceeded the statutory time limit. This made it a lot easier to stay on top of which councils needed to be chased and when I needed to do it.
“Managing so many FOI requests was still challenging and very time consuming but it would have been much harder by email. The first batch of requests had a success rate of more than 95% and the other (which was more detailed) was around 85%.
“I don’t think I would have achieved that without WhatDoTheyKnow Pro and, as a result, the investigation and interactive map we created would not have been as comprehensive.”
Refining the requests
While councils have to publish annual lists of the assets they own, this does not include vital information such as who assets were bought from or sold to and the prices paid
“I sent requests to one of each type of local authority (London borough, metropolitan borough, unitary, county and district) to test what, if any, information councils would provide. The fact that all of those requests were successful meant I had confidence when submitting the batch requests.
“It also allowed me to include additional information in the bulk requests, because some of the test councils erroneously withheld, under Section 40, the identities of companies. As a result I added a note to the request highlighting that this would not be a correct application of that exemption.
“As each response came in I recorded them in two separate spreadsheets — one showing what assets had been bought/sold and another containing information about how the money raised from asset sales had been used. Gradually we built a comprehensive picture of what was happening with public spaces, and that was crucial for our story.”
Bringing about change
There have been tangible results from this investigation.
“The government launched an investigation into the sale of assets by Peterborough Council as a result of this particular story, focusing on that area.
“We submitted our findings to an inquiry currently being held by the Communities and Local Government select committee and were mentioned by name during the first day of oral hearings.
“And last month the Public Accounts Committee announced it would hold a similar inquiry into the sale of public land. Several councils halted their property investment policies after our coverage revealed how much they had borrowed to fund the purchases.”
Thank you very much to Gareth Davies for talking to us about the Sold From Under You project.
Image: Daniel von Appen
Freedom of Information forms the basis of many a campaign that seeks to expose hidden facts, or stories which should be in the public eye.
We spoke to Jen Persson, Director of defenddigitalme, about that organisation’s tireless campaign to get to the truth on the collection, handling and re-use of schoolchildren’s personal data in England.
What emerged was a timeline of requests and responses — sometimes hard fought for — which when pieced together reveal secrecy, bad practice and some outright falsehoods from the authorities to whom we entrust our children’s data. Perhaps most striking of the findings was the sharing of data with the Home Office in support of their Hostile Environment policy.
As Jen describes defenddigitalme’s campaign, “It began with trying to understand how my daughter’s personal information is used by the Department for Education; it became a campaign to get the use of 23 million records made safe”.
It’s a long tale, but definitely worth the read.
December 2012: consultations and changes
The story begins here, although it would still be a couple of years before Jen became aware of the issues around children’s data, “despite — or perhaps because of — having three young children in school at the time”.
Why did no one at all seem to know where millions of children’s personal data was being sent out to, or why, or for how long?
As Jen explains, “During the Christmas holidays, the Department for Education (DfE) announced a consultation about changing data laws on how nationally stored school pupil records could be used, proposing that individual pupil-level records could be given away to third parties, including commercial companies, journalists, charities, and researchers. Campaigners raised alarm bells, pointing out that the personal data would be highly identifying, sensitive, and insecure — but the changes went through nonetheless.”
2014: discovering the power of FOI
Jen came across that change in law for herself when reading about a later, similar data issue in the press: there were plans to also make available medical records from GP practices. This prompted her first foray into FOI, “to answer some of the questions I had about the plans, which weren’t being published”.
I feel strongly that if I am going to ask for information which has a cost in time and capacity in the public sector, then it should mean the answers become available to everyone.
And that first step got her thinking:
“At around the same time I asked the DfE a simple question, albeit through a Subject Access rather than FOI request: What personal data do you hold about my own child?
“My Subject Access request was refused. The Department for Education would not tell me what data they held about my children, and as importantly, could not tell me who they had given it to.
“There was nothing at all in the public domain about this database the DfE held, beyond what the campaigners in 2012 had exposed. It wasn’t even clear how big it was. How was it governed? Who decided where data could be sent out to and why? How was it audited and what were the accountability mechanisms? And why was the DfE refusing its lawful obligations to tell me what they held about my daughter, let me correct errors, and know where it had gone? Why did no one at all seem to know where millions of children’s personal data was being sent out to, or why, or for how long?
“Prior to all this, I’d never even heard of Freedom of Information. But I knew that there was something wrong and unjust about commercial companies and journalists being able to access more personal data about our children than we could ourselves.
I worded some questions badly. I learned how to write them better. And I’m still learning.
“I needed to understand how the database operated in order to challenge it. I needed to be able to offer an evidenced and alternative view of what could be better, and why. FOI was the only way to start to obtain information that was in the public interest.
“I believed it should be published in the public domain. WhatDoTheyKnow is brilliant at that. I feel strongly that if I am going to ask for information which has a cost in time and capacity in the public sector, then it should mean the answers become available to everyone.”
“I tried to ask for information I knew existed or should exist, that would support the reasons for the changes we needed in data handling. I worded some questions badly. I learned how to write them better. And I’m still learning.”
2015: sharing children’s personal data with newspapers
That was just the beginning: at the time of writing, Jen has made over 80 FOI requests in public via WhatDoTheyKnow.com .
Through FOI, defenddigitalme has discovered who has had access to the data about millions of individuals, and under what precepts, finding such astonishing rationales as: “The Daily Telegraph requested pupil-level data and so suppression was not applicable.” The publication “wished to factor in the different types of pupil” attending different schools.
Jen explains: “This covered information on pupil characteristics related to prior attainment: gender, ethnic group, language group, free school meal eligibility (often used as a proxy for poverty indicators) and SEN (Special Educational Needs and disability) status, which were deemed by the Department to be appropriate as these are seen as important factors in levels of pupil attainment.”
But with such granular detail, anonymity would be lost and the DfE were relying only on “cast iron assurances” that the Telegraph would not use the data to identify individuals.
2016: sharing children’s nationality data with the Home Office
In a Written Question put by Caroline Lucas in Parliament in July 2016, the Minister for Education was asked whether the Home Office would access this newly collected nationality data. He stated: “the data will be collected solely for the Department’s internal use […]. There are currently no plans to share the data with other government departments unless we are legally required to do so.”
But on the contrary: defenddigitalme’s subsequent requests would disclose that there was already a data sharing agreement to hand over data on nationality to the Home Office, for the purposes of immigration enforcement and to support the Hostile Environment policy.
Jen says: “As part of our ongoing questions about the types of users of the school census data, we’d asked whether the Home Office or police were recipients of pupil data, because it wasn’t recorded in the public registry of data recipients.
The Home Office had requested data about dependents of parents or guardians suspected of being in the country without leave to remain.
“In August 2016, a FOI response did confirm that the Home Office was indeed accessing national pupil data; but to get to the full extent of the issue, we had to ask follow up questions. They had said that “since April 2012, the Home Office has submitted 20 requests for information to the National Pupil Database. Of these 18 were granted and 2 were refused as the NPD did not contain the information requested.”
“But the reply did not indicate how many people each request was for. And sure enough, when we asked for the detail, we found the requests were for hundreds of people at a time. Only later again, did we get told that each request could be for a maximum agreed 1,500 individuals, a policy set out in an agreement between the Departments which had started in 2015, in secret.
“In the October afternoon of the very same day as the school census was collecting nationality data for the first time, this response confirmed that the Home Office had access to previously collected school census pupil data including name, home and school address: “The nature of all requests from the Police and the Home Office is to search for specific individuals in the National Pupil Database and to return the latest address and/or school information held where a match is found in the NPD.”
The Home Office had requested data about dependents of parents or guardians suspected of being in the country without leave to remain.
“In December 2016, after much intervention by MPs, including leaked letters, and FOI requests by both us and — we later learned — by journalists at Schools Week, the government published the data sharing agreement that they had in place and that was being used”.It had been amended in October 2016 to remove the line on nationality data, and allowed the data to be matched with Home Office information. It had also been planned to deprioritise the children of those without leave to remain when allocating school places, shocking opposition MPs who described the plan variously as “a grubby little idea” and, simply, “disgusting”.
Other campaigners joined the efforts as facts started to come into the public domain. A coalition of charities and child rights advocates formed under the umbrella organisation of Against Borders for Children, and Liberty would go on to support them in preparing a judicial review. ABC organised a successful public boycott, and parents and teachers supplied samples of forms that schools were using, some asking for only non-white British pupils to provide information.
Overall, nationality was not returned for more than a quarter of pupils.
2017: behind the policy making
Through further requests defenddigitalme learned that the highly controversial decision to collect nationality and country of birth from children in schools — which came into effect from the autumn of 2016 — had been made in 2015. Furthermore, it had been signed off by a little known board which, crucially, had been kept in the dark.
“I’d been told by attendees of the Star Chamber Scrutiny Board meeting that they had not been informed that the Home Office was already getting access to pupil data when they were asked to sign off the new nationality data collection, and they were not told that this new data would be passed on for Home Office purposes, either. That matters in my opinion, because law-making relies on accountability to ensure that decisions are just. It can’t be built on lies”, says Jen.
The process of getting hold of the minutes from that significant meeting took a year.
Jen says, “We went all the way through the appeals process, from the first Internal Review, then a complaint to the Information Commissioner. The ICO had issued a Decision Notice that meant the DfE should provide the information, but when they still refused the next step was the Information Rights First Tier Tribunal.
“Two weeks before the court hearing due, the DfE eventually withdrew its appeal and provided some of the information in November 2017. Volunteers helped us with preparation of the paperwork, including folk from the Campaign for Freedom for Information. It was important that the ICO’s decision was respected.”
2018: raised awareness
In April last year, the Department confirmed that Nationality and Country of Birth must no longer be collected for school census purposes.
However, Jen says, “Children’s data, collected for the purposes of education, are still being shared monthly for the purposes of the Hostile Environment. There’s a verbal promise that the nationality data won’t be passed over, but since the government’s recent introduction of the Immigration Bill 2018 and immigration exemption in the Data Protection Act, I have little trust in the department’s ability in the face of Home Office pressure, to be able to keep those promises.
“Disappointingly”, says Jen, “the government has decided instead of respecting human rights to data protection and privacy on this, to create new laws to work around them.
The direction of travel for change to manage data for good, is the right one.
“It’s wrong to misuse data collected for one purpose and on one legal basis entrusted for children’s education, for something punitive. We need children in education, it’s in their best interests and those of our wider society. Everyone needs to be able to trust the system.
“That’s why we support Against Borders for Children’s call to delete the nationality data.
“A positive overall outcome, however”, she continues, “is that in May 2018, the Department for Education put the sharing of all pupil level data on hold while they moved towards a new Secure Access model, based on the so-called ‘5-Safes’. The intention is distribute access to data with third parties, not distribute the data itself. The Department resumed data sharing in September but with new policies on data governance, working hard to make pupil data safer and meet ‘user needs’. The direction of travel for change to manage data for good, is the right one.”
2019: Defenddigitalme continues to campaign
Defenddigitalme has come a long way, but they won’t stop campaigning yet.
People working with FOI is really important, even and perhaps especially when it doesn’t make the press, but provides better facts, knowledge, and understanding.
Jen says, “Raw data is still distributed to third parties, and Subject Access, where I started, is still a real challenge.
“The Department is handing out sensitive data, but can’t easily let you see all of it, or make corrections, or tell you which bodies for sure it was given to. Still, that shouldn’t put people off asking about their own or their child’s record, or opting out of the use of their individual record for over 14s and adult learners, and demand respect for their rights, and better policy and practice. The biggest change needed is that people should be told where their data goes, who uses it for how long, and why.
“Access to how government functions and the freedom of the press to be able to reveal and report on that is vital to keep the checks and balances on systems we cannot see. We rely on a strong civil service to work in the best interests of the country and all its people and uphold human rights and the rule of law, regardless of the colour of government or their own beliefs. People working with FOI is really important, even and perhaps especially when it doesn’t make the press, but provides better facts, knowledge, and understanding.
“FOI can bring about greater transparency and accountability of policy and decision making. It’s then up to all of us to decide how to use that information, and act on it if the public are being misled, if decisions are unjust, or policy and practice that are hidden will be harmful to the public, not only those deciding what the public interest is.
“WhatDoTheyKnow is a really useful tool in that. Long may it flourish.”
Here at mySociety, we talk a lot about how citizens can use Freedom of Information to hold public authorities to account. But it’s interesting to note that those same authorities, or members of them, sometimes also turn to FOI to solicit information from one another.
At first, this might seem strange: it’s a common assumption that authorities, not to mention high level people within them, have the power to summon any information they require in order to go about their duties.
But on closer inspection it becomes clear that there are several reasons why the public sector might turn to FOI rather than the more standard channels.
Surveying multiple authorities
Suppose you’d like to gather information from many different sources — say every hospital in the country — in order to compile a nationwide set of statistics.
A large task like this can be more orderly if managed via a set of Freedom of Information requests. Additionally, the obligation for authorities to respond may mean that your request goes into official channels — with built in timescales — helping to ensure that you get results.
As a nice illustration of this kind of usage, the Royal College of Surgeons surveyed NHS trusts to see if they are still using outdated fax machine equipment, generating a story which made the headlines back in July.
Members of Parliament may also use FOI to survey a large number of public authorities and gather statistics to support campaigns or an issue they’re working on.
We don’t know if members of the Scottish Parliament have more of an appetite for this than the UK one, but a quick search showed several using FOI to good effect. Lothian MSP Kezia Dugdale surveyed residential units to see stats on vulnerable children going missing; Murdo Fraser accessed delay repayments figures from Scotrail; Mark Griffin discovered that council tax exemptions weren’t being utilised; and Monica Lennon uncovered the lack of sanitary product strategies across Scotland’s health boards.
That said, there are several UK MPs past and present who have made use of WhatDoTheyKnow, including the office of Diane Abbott and Dr Phillip Lee. There may well be others who prefer to use a pseudonym.
Then, those working in bodies such as universities and hospitals very commonly use FOI to support their academic or medical research.
We can’t neglect to mention that in all such cases, WhatDoTheyKnow Pro would be a great help to the process of sending out and organising multiple requests.
Putting information into the public domain
FOI’s not just useful for large scale requests, though. Those from public sector bodies may be using the Act to bring information into the open because they feel it should be known — and of course, making the request through WhatDoTheyKnow will do this by default, since all requests and responses are published online.
Researchers from Cardiff University used FOI as one tool when investigating how data is used by various public services to help in decision-making. They point out that, while fiddly and labour-intensive, FOI fills a gap in public knowledge:
The use of FOIs to investigate the integration of changing data systems is problematic and resource intensive for all parties. However, in the absence of a public list, the Freedom of Information Act provides an opportunity for systematic inquiry.
Getting hold of information which has been hard to pin down
Sometimes FOI is a last resort when other avenues have been exhausted. On TheyWorkForYou we see a councillor writing to her own council to find out their preparedness for a no-deal Brexit, with the remark “I have tried to get this via the members case work system but I am not confident I will get an adequate response”.
Such frustration definitely motivates Members of Parliament into submitting FOI requests, too. There are other channels through which they can ask questions of course, for example by submitting Written Questions — a process by which both the question and answer are placed in the public domain, thanks to Hansard.
But should those channels fail, FOI is another option.
In 2010 the BBC wrote about how costs for redecoration of Parliament’s Head Office were only uncovered thanks to FOI, after a Written Answer was turned down on grounds of the information being too commercially sensitive.
The parliamentary staff and civil servants who deal with Written Answers are likely to be different from those who deal with FOI requests. Their criteria for release of information may also differ, as they are guided by different protocols.
Representatives at every level can use FOI as a channel for information which might have proven elusive via other means. We see on WhatDoTheyKnow that Parish Councils quite often send requests to higher tier authorities to get hold of information that will help them in their work, as is happening here for example.
Keeping an eye open
When it comes to authorities and representatives requesting information from other authorities, we can see the benefits. One of our team, Gareth, makes an analogy with the Open Source community, where because code is open to all, developers (sharing their expertise in their area of specialisation) can be quick to spot and repair any bugs: “It’s a really good thing for security. Many eyeballs make it easier to identify problems and suggest improvements”.
Similarly, FOI acts as a kind of safety net, another layer of assurance that our authorities are working as they should be.
If you’ve seen any other good examples of public sector to public sector FOI (for want of a better term), please do let us know.
Last year, we launched WhatDoTheyKnow Pro, our service for journalists and other professional users of Freedom of Information.
As it’s a new venture, we’re keen to track whether it’s achieving everything we’d hoped for when first planning the service. One of the targets which we set, as a measure of success, is the number of impactful press stories generated by its use.
What might count as impactful? Well, that’s obviously up for debate, but loosely we’d say that we’re looking for news stories that have a wide readership, and uncover previously unknown facts, offer new insights, or bring about change.
Stories in the news
A couple of recent stories, generated through WhatDoTheyKnow Pro, have ticked at least a few of those boxes. At mySociety, we keep a position of political neutrality — our services are available to everyone of any persuasion, and we don’t campaign on any political issue — so we present these stories not to comment on their substance, but to note that they certainly fit the criteria above.
Brexit is clearly one of the most vital stories of our day, here in the UK, and while many might feel that we’ve had a surfeit of commentary on the issue, we can only benefit from understanding the facts.
One of WhatDoTheyKnow Pro’s earliest users, Jenna Corderoy, broke two important stories on that topic. First, that UK parliamentary standards watchdog IPSA is investigating Jacob Rees Mogg’s hard Brexit European Research Group over their second bank account and ‘informal governance structure’. This also ran in the Daily Mail.
Secondly (and this progresses a previous story about expenses – also uncovered thanks to Jenna’s use of WhatDoTheyKnow Pro) there is the widely-reported story that the Electoral Commission had misinterpreted laws around campaigning expenses, allowing Vote Leave to overspend. This was picked up by the BBC and Guardian, among many others.
No matter which side of the Brexit debate you support, hopefully you will agree that it benefits society as a whole to have the facts out in the open.
From FOI request to the national news
As a last thought: it’s interesting to us to see how a story grows from one or more FOI requests into something that hits the national news platforms. We think these stories were broken using a tried and true method that goes like this:
- As a journalist, campaigner or researcher, you might be investigating a topic. Perhaps you’ve heard a rumour that you’re hoping to substantiate, or perhaps you’re inquiring more deeply into a story that’s already in the air. Using FOI, you can retrieve facts and figures to bolster your investigation.
- Once you have a story, you can publish it in a smaller publication like Open Democracy, testing the water to see if it gains any traction.
- If the story is well-received there, it’s easy to approach larger outlets with the proof (in the form of FOI responses) underpinning it.
If you’re a journalist or you use FOI in your professional life and you’d like to try WhatDoTheyKnow Professional for yourself, then head over to whatdotheyknow.com/pro. Put in the code WELCOME18 when you sign up, and you’ll get 25% off your first month’s subscription.
Image: Roman Kraft
What can you do if you suspect your local council of financial misconduct?
One solution is to take a good hard look at their books; and thanks to the Local Audit and Accountability Act we all have the right to do just that for a set 30-day period each year.
The People’s Audit is a volunteer-run network of people who are keen to raise awareness of these little-known rights, in the belief that local government spending should be open and accountable to local people.
At the same time, they’re using the Act to good effect themselves, as they probe into spending anomalies in their own borough of Lambeth. They’ve found that the Freedom of Information Act has proved a useful complement to their auditing activity.
Investigating financial misconduct
We spoke to Ben Rymer from The People’s Audit to find out more. What exactly have they uncovered to date?
“Perhaps the most worrying finding was around the Fenwick Estate regeneration project in Clapham. The chosen supplier was almost £6 million more expensive than some others who tendered. This is a massive red flag as the likelihood of this sum being accounted for by quality of work alone is slim.”
There’s plenty more: Ben says they’ve made concerning findings around public housing, procurement and contract management and how major works are overseen, from possible price fixing between contractors to payments for work that was never done.
For example, the group say that a sampling of some of the housing blocks on the Wyvil Estate in Vauxhall indicates that the council paid its contractors for more than twice the number of repairs that were actually carried out.
They also claim to have found evidence of land in Kenningham and Streatham being sold to a private developer at a discount of at least £1m, without any competitive tender.
And another major finding was that costs for Lambeth’s new town hall — originally flagged as a money-saver for residents — have overrun by more than £50 million.
Two Acts working together
So, some substantial discoveries. Where does Freedom of Information come into the picture?
Ben says that the two Acts can be used together, to good effect. “The Local Audit Act requires access to be given to documents relating to costs incurred by the council in the preceding financial year. Once these have been obtained, FOI requests can then be targeted more precisely using the insights gained from such documents.”
But there is a slight snag: with the Local Audit Act offering access only within a specific period of 30 days each year, the FOI Act’s prescription that a response must arrive within ‘up to 20 working days’ does not allow for much wiggle room, especially if the FOI response generates more questions that might be answered through scrutiny of the accounts.
Ben says that unfortunately, responses to both Acts are often delayed, refused on the grounds that they would take too long (despite similar requests to other councils being processed without an issue) or just ignored. “An extreme example is our attempt to obtain the original budget for Lambeth’s new town hall, which we have now been trying to get hold of for 18 months!”.
But all of this notwithstanding, WhatDoTheyKnow has been a useful tool for the FOI side of the People’s Audit’s investigations: “It is an easy way to organise FOI requests, and the fact that it’s all in public means that other people can use the information in the responses — though we do also submit requests directly to the council.”
“One notable success was when one of the team received some emails via WhatDoTheyKnow following the audit inspection period in 2015 which showed that the council had agreed to install gyms in libraries months before any public consultation on the idea.”
So, the group have uncovered plenty of concerning information — but have they actually made a difference?
Ben says that they’ve achieved a good amount of local and national press attention. More importantly, they’ve seen an increased focus on financial issues among the people of Lambeth, especially in the run-up to the local elections in the spring. “Given that we are all volunteers with day jobs and families we think this is a pretty good result!”
And they believe that there’s been some effect within their local authority too, although not as wholehearted as they would have liked. “They have published their responses to citizen audit requests and are making more positive noises about the importance of transparency.
“However, they are also imposing arbitrary limits on the amount of information which citizens can request and have put in place ‘guidance’ around requests which we think may be intended to discourage further requests.”
If the Local Audit and Accountability Act is new to you, you may be wondering whether you should be using it yourself. The People’s Audit think you should consider it:
“Local Government financial scrutiny is really important and these powers need to be used to their fullest to prevent wasteful spending or corruption. Many people don’t realise that councils are often £1bn+ organisations, or that UK councils spend a total of over £92bn a year. Yet since the Audit Commission was abolished there is very little scrutiny of this spend.
“Many local newspapers have closed in recent years so citizen audits and hyperlocal publications have become more important.
“The powers are hugely underused currently. However what we’ve hopefully shown is that a group of committed individuals can use them to good effect.”
If you’d like to do the same, find out more on the People’s Audit website.