Controversial loans sold to councils by banks, known as LOBOs (Lender Option Borrower Option), are under investigation by the group Debt Resistance UK (DRUK).
These loans have unfavourable terms, according to a landmark legal case may be untenable, and are resulting in absurd levels of debt repayment: DRUK have found, for example, that in the borough of Newham, the equivalent of 77% of council tax income goes directly into interest payments alone.
DRUK’s campaign, #NoLOBOs, aims to both expose the truth and make the case that such loans are illegitimate — and we were interested to see that they’ve made use of our Freedom of Information site, WhatDoTheyKnow, to do so.
We’re always interested to hear how people and organisations are using our services, so we caught up with DRUK’s Vica Rogers, who gave us the whole history.
What are LOBOs? Can you explain a bit about them for the completely uninitiated?
Vica: LOBO stands for “Lender Option Borrower Option” and the name indicates the terms of the loan: on predefined dates, the lender (the bank) has the option to raise the interest rate; if the bank decides to do so, the borrower (the council) can either accept the new interest rate or repay the loan in full; if the bank doesn’t decide to use the option, then the council is locked into the loan and can only exit it by paying an exorbitant exit fee — sometimes 90% of the loan’s principal. With this mechanism some councils are locked into paying up to 11%, which is very expensive in the current climate where interest rates are low.
LOBO loans have been described as a “lose-lose bet for councils” because no matter what happens to interest rates, the one-sided terms of the loans ensure the banks always win. In this way banks are making huge profits and are extracting resources from local government that should instead be going to cover the cost of services for its residents.
How are you using Freedom of Information requests in the campaign?
Vica: FOI was crucial for the development of the #NoLOBOs campaign. We started from the “borrowing and investment tables” for local government published by the then Department for Communities and Local Government. We sent FOI requests to more than 240 councils who from the tables appeared to be borrowing from banks.
We asked each council to provide, for each LOBO loan they had, the original contract and a spreadsheet containing the principal, maturity date, interest rate, etc.
The spreadsheet was easier to obtain, while the contracts were often withheld.
We link any data and documents back to WhatdoTheyKnow so that anyone can see the source and the process that we went through to obtain it. This is very useful when dealing with journalists.
We therefore had to go all the way to the Information Commissioner’s Office for them to rule that the public interest in providing the loan contracts overwrote the commercial confidentiality exemption that councils were relying on.
Once we managed to obtain the contracts from some of the councils it was much easier to argue for the others to release them. This is one of the values of using batch requests.
In a second batch of requests we asked the council to identify the financial intermediaries — the brokers and the Treasury Management Advisors (TMAs) — involved in recommending and arranging the loans so that we could expose their conflict of interests. We also asked for the fees paid to the brokers and any invoices and contracts.
We obtained most of the information related to the companies involved and the fees paid, but most of the original documents requested were missing. This was due to the age of the documents, as councils are not required to keep them for more than a decade.
We have now published on our website most of the information we gathered. On our website we link any data and documents back to the WhatDoTheyKnow site so that anyone can see the source and the process that we went through to obtain it.
This is very useful when dealing with journalists, but it also provides local citizens the opportunity to challenge their council on LOBO loans without having to relate specifically to our campaign.
Our approach to the campaign has been from the start to encourage local residents to take action autonomously, both because we are supporters of decentralised forms of organising, but also because being such a small organisation we did not have the resources to develop a national campaign.
What gave you the idea to use FOI requests, and why did you decide to use WhatDoTheyKnow to make them?
By using WhatDoTheyKnow the information was provided with open access by default, could be linked and referenced in articles, and would have a longevity that does not always exist with small websites and organisations.
Vica: Through previous work by one of our members on council reserves it became obvious that some of the most financialised councils were also some of the most secretive — and a protracted FOI campaign would be necessary to unearth relevant practices.
We used WhatDoTheyKnow partially due to the experience of working in small, poorly funded NGOs, where once an organisation closed down, the information was lost unless it was published somewhere on a third party website.
By using WhatDoTheyKnow the information was provided with open access by default, could be linked and referenced in articles, and would have a longevity that does not always exist with small websites and organisations.
DRUK believes LOBOs to be illegal: what’s the basis of that?
Vica: There was a ruling in the 80s called the Hammersmith and Fulham vs Goldman Sachs case. At that time, councils had entered into hundreds of swap contracts presenting significant risk to local government finances across the country. The judge then ruled that it was ultra-vires (‘beyond their powers’) for councils to be gambling with taxpayers’ money and all the contracts were cancelled.
Debt Resistance UK is also making the case that such debt is illegitimate. In the current years where local authorities are facing huge cuts with a 40% reduction in grants from central government, interest payments to banks are ring-fenced while funds to essential services are being cut. Debt Resistance UK questions if it is legitimate that human rights of local residents are being put second to the interests of the banks.
There are also other basis on which such loans could be considered illegal:
- In many cases LOBO loans were taken out on advice from Treasury Management Advisors, who should be independent, but in the case of LOBO loans were receiving undeclared commissions from the brokers who were providing the deals. This is a clear conflict of interest that council’s can use to challenge the loans.
- LOBO loans are instruments that were created to engineer around the Hammersmith & Fulham vs Goldman Sachs case by embedding the derivatives in the loan. The banks should be held to account for deliberately creating a loophole to extract public resources.
- The value of LOBO loans is pegged to LIBOR. Since some of the banks and brokers who sold LOBO loans to councils were also involved in rigging LIBOR, there is a case for councils to challenge the banks on the base of this manipulation and the information asymmetry it created.
What’s next for the campaign?
Vica: We designed the #NoLOBOs website so people could understand the overall campaign and then search for the details of their own council. The website also offers suggestions on how people can take action.
We have been collaborating with the cooperative Research for Action to develop two strands of the NoLOBOs campaign:
Objections to LOBO loans across the UK
We are using the 2014 Audit and Accountability Act which provides local citizens with the right to inspect, ask a question about and object to items in their council’s financial accounts.
This right can be exercised once a year during the summer once the draft accounts have been published. Debt Resistance UK, in collaboration with the cooperative Research for Action, has supported more than 50 residents in the use of the Act to either gather more information on the loans, or to challenge their lawfulness through the objection process. All objections link back to WhatDoTheyKnow as evidence of LOBO loan borrowing. We are now starting to receive the responses to these actions.
A citizen debt audit in Newham
Newham, best known for hosting the 2012 Olympics, is one of the poorest local authorities in the country. It is also the largest borrower of LOBO loans and is paying the equivalent of 77% of council tax income only on interest payments. We have therefore decided to focus on the borough and develop an in-depth citizen debt audit. The aim of the audit is to evaluate the social and economic sustainability of the council’s debt, the legality of it’s LOBO loans portfolio and who should be held to account for it. Through the process we hope to improve the accountability of the council in managing funds in the public interest.
How can people get involved?
Vica: We welcome all contributions to the NoLOBOs project, and are open for people contributing in different ways without feeling they have to become a member of Debt Resistance UK.
If you are a local resident the best way to take action is to submit an objection to the council’s accounts. For most councils, the period to object to the accounts this year runs from the start of June to mid July. If you would like to object to your council’s accounts, do get in touch with Debt Resistance UK and we can support you through the process. You can find a guide on how the process works here.
The #NoLOBOs campaign has been made possible thanks to a network of people with various expertise who have kindly offered their time to unravelling different aspects of the LOBO story. If you would like to contribute based on your expertise, please get in touch. Some of the expertise that we would find useful are: financial analysts, accountants, lawyers, local government finance officers, journalists, developers, data analysts, data visualisers and graphic designers.
To gain further insight, we are also very interested in talking to people who have been aware of LOBO loans while working within organisations involved in the mis-selling, be it a council, a bank, a brokerage company or a Treasury Management Advisory company. We’d also like to collaborate with officers and councillors who want to take action in their own council.
NOTE: Debt Resistance UK is unaffiliated with mySociety, so if you would like to get involved in the NoLOBOS campaign, please contact them directly.
Thanks very much to Vica for taking the time to explain the campaign, and its use of WhatDoTheyKnow. We’re glad to have been one part of this many-pronged approach.
Image: Raw Pixel
What’s the best way to get your supporters to campaign, when the finer details of what they’re pressing for may vary from place to place? That’s the issue that faced Prostate Cancer UK as they call for better provision for men across the country with erectile dysfunction as a result of prostate cancer.
There are five core treatments for tackling erectile dysfunction, but whether all of them will be offered to you depends on your postcode. In some areas, all are offered as standard, while in others there may be none.
The tool we built for Prostate Cancer UK used several of mySociety’s areas of expertise, from mapping to user testing — we even used Freedom of Information. And putting it all together, we have a powerful campaigning platform that responds to users’ location, while raising awareness and pushing for improvement.
Prostate Cancer UK’s Erectile Dysfunction campaign site informs people about what care should be available to those who experience the condition as a result of prostate cancer treatment, and urges them to write to their local health commissioner if provision is poor in their area.
Educating, campaigning, sharing
The user is first informed: they are shown the five factors which constitute good treatment of erectile dysfunction. After that, they are prompted to input their postcode to see how many of those measures are provided by the NHS body responsible for their region.
If provision is poor, they are encouraged to help campaign: users can opt to write to their Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG), Health Board or Health and Social Care Board to ask them to improve what’s available. They are given the choice between writing a letter from scratch, or using a pre-composed template which also contains a section for the writer to add a paragraph of their own words — a pragmatic balance that avoids an influx of identical form letters, while still addressing fact that when users are faced with a completely blank page, many will drop out of the process.
When you’ve done that, for those in England there’s also an opportunity to contact Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Health to highlight the variation in treatment for erectile dysfunction and establish which organisation is responsible for the national commissioning guidelines.
Finally, the user is invited to share what they’ve learned, via Facebook, Twitter or email. Our user testing revealed that, contrary to our worries, people were happy to do this without embarrassment.
How it works
Like most of mySociety’s own sites, the ‘Better Care’ site uses MapIt to match the user’s postcode with a boundary, in this case the boundaries of the CCGs, Health Boards and Health & Social Care Boards. That’s how we deliver the information about what’s available in their local area.
When you input your postcode to see how your local provisioners are doing, MapIt also delivers information for other areas, including a couple of close neighbouring ones. This allows us to provide a nice comparison, along with the statistic that shows whether your provisioner is better, worse, or within the same range as the average.
But how did we gather the data to tell you how well each CCG, Health Board or Health and Social Care Board is catering for erectile dysfunction patients? Well, fortunately, thanks to our own WhatDoTheyKnow website, it was relatively easy to send a Freedom of Information request to every one in the country — 235 of them in total. The WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer admin team were able to help with this large batch request.
Once we had all the data and a general idea of how the tool would work, we took an early version out to test it with users. The insights we gained from this process were, as always, extremely useful, and led to us altering page layouts and other elements that made the whole process as clear as it could be.
Finally, we incorporated quite a bit of statistics-gathering into the whole tool, so that Prostate Cancer UK would be able to see where their campaign might benefit from further optimising in the future.
All in all, we’re very glad to have been part of this important campaign to help men understand what’s available to them, and where they might need to push for more.
Lucie Stephens has sent Freedom of Information requests to every Local Education Authority in the country — over 200 of them.
She’s requesting information about asbestos in schools, and for a reason that’s very close to her heart. Earlier this year, Lucie’s mother, a teacher, died of mesothelioma, a cancer that is almost exclusively caused by exposure to that substance.
Now Lucie is acting on the promise she made before her mum passed away: “To do my best to make sure no-one else has to suffer like she has.”
We were really interested to hear how Lucie came to use Freedom of Information as tool in her campaign, so we got in touch to ask her a few questions.
After Mum’s diagnosis I wanted to know how safe my daughter’s school was. I wrote to them and got a positive response: her school does contain asbestos and they were willing to share this information with me.
I then wrote to my local council to request the same information for my borough. This took a lot longer, and involved frequently having to chase and remind them of deadlines missed.
I thought all parents and teachers should know if their school contains asbestos. I didn’t want them to have to struggle to access the information from their local council in the way that I did.
A friend suggested that FOI would be a good way of getting hold of consistent information, and at this point it also became clear that it would be a useful way to analyse how well asbestos is being managed in our schools.
Had you heard of the Freedom of Information Act, or used it previously?
I had heard about FOI before but hadn’t used it. It had always seemed a complicated and challenging process, so I was nervous of it. I knew what questions to ask but was still worried about getting the format right.
I had made contact with the National Union of Teachers (NUT), as they are also campaigning to get asbestos removed from schools. I asked them to advise on the best wording to use in order to get the information that I required, and they were really helpful.
Once you have all the data for every school in the country, what will you do with it?
Every parent and teacher should know if their school contains asbestos.
I am planning to use the data collected to produce an easy-to-access national map that parents and teachers can use to find out if their school is affected. By telling parents which schools have asbestos we are enabling them to hold their school, local education authority and ultimately (we hope) the Department for Education to account. The map will also be useful for campaigners and journalists concerned with the issue of asbestos in schools.
What would be the ideal outcome of your campaign?
I want policy on asbestos in schools to change.
Each school should be expected to produce an annual report on the extent of asbestos and how it is being managed. This will increase transparency and accountability until we get to the point where all asbestos in schools has been removed.
At the same time the Department for Education needs to change its approach. It needs to commit to the phased removal from all schools by 2028.
To achieve this they need to earmark funds specifically for asbestos removal and set annual targets for the number of schools that will be asbestos free. The phased removal should start with the most dangerous schools first but seek to remove all asbestos by 2028.
By revealing which schools contain asbestos, the campaign will make it easier for parents to hold the DFE to account over their plans for the removal of asbestos.
Have any of your FOI requests been turned down?
I made my requests to local authorities, asking them to provide the figures for every school in their jurisdiction. Most have not provided information for academies and free schools as they do not have a statutory responsibility for them.
There were various refusals and partial responses, from authorities which just issued generic statements that ‘all local schools built before 2000 contain asbestos’ with a link to their online schools directory, to those claiming that the information sought would take too long to collect, and so refusing to issue it, or requesting payment before the information could be released.*
Some areas withheld data on the number of claims that they had received from teachers, school staff and ex-pupils, stating that the figures were low enough to make it possible to identify the individuals concerned. Some areas refused to release details of the amount of money paid out in claims, stating that this would breach data protection. This rule was not applied consistently, though, as some areas did release figures relating to only one claim and settlement.
I was very irritated to find some authorities who, because they claimed to be unable to answer one of my seven questions, then refused to answer any of them. To date we only have data from 135 local councils of 152 approached. Some are very overdue in providing the data.
In gathering the data it was clear that there is huge variety in the ways in which asbestos is being managed in schools. It was also apparent that there is a wide range of ways in which FOI requests are handled.
What benefits did you get from using WhatDoTheyKnow?
Without WhatDoTheyKnow I wouldn’t have been able to collect the data.
The site was really easy to use. It was very helpful in managing the data as it appeared, and in reminding me when authorities were overdue in providing information.
In some cases I used my right to a review to challenge the handling of a request, and this led to further information being released. I definitely wouldn’t have made a challenge without the site making the process straightforward in the way it does.
It has also been great to have the data held on a public site like this, so that I’ve been able to direct journalists and campaigners to the source of the data directly.
The only challenge with the site was that the number of requests was capped. I can totally appreciate why this was, and in fact when I did contact the team and ask for this cap to be removed so that I could complete the requests in a shorter timeframe, they were very helpful. Having ascertained that I was sending bulk requests for a valid reason, they acted quickly to remove the cap.
You can read more about Lucie’s campaign, and lend your support, on her petition page.
* Note: Making an FOI request is almost always free, but authorities can charge under certain circumstances, and they can refuse to respond to a request outright if it will cost more than a certain amount — currently £450 — to do so.
Are you part of a campaigning organisation? If you ever ask your supporters to write to politicians, you should know that WriteToThem can be integrated into your website simply, and for free.
Like all mySociety’s offerings, WriteToThem is really easy to use. All your supporters need do is input their postcode and compose their message, then we send it off to the correct representative.
From your side, there are no worries about data management or CRM integration – we take care of all that at our end.
Behind the scenes, we’ve included several safeguards that prevent abuse: for example, your supporters will only be able to contact their own MP, not bombard other representatives with messages they’re unable to act on.
We also check that messages have been safely accepted by the representatives’ servers, and we even follow up to ensure that your supporter received a response.
WriteToThem is free for you, and free for your supporters. It’s available to every sort of organisation, from any part of the political spectrum.
WriteToThem on your website
Full integration with your own website
You can include WriteToThem’s functionality onto your own site, and even template it to match your own styles so that it’s a seamless experience for your users. You will need just a little technical expertise: the instructions are here.
Here’s a case study that shows how one charity used WriteToThem in this way.
A simple link
If you don’t have any technical resource available to you, though, it’s still easy enough to harness the power of WriteToThem. The quickest and most straightforward way is, of course, to include a link to the WriteToThem homepage, from your own website or in your campaign emails.
A slightly more polished link
For a more sophisticated interface, take a look at this page, which has code that you can drop onto your site or newsletter. You can modify the code so that you only cover certain types of representative – for example, MPs, or MSPs.
If you want to get fancy, you can even pre-fill the name and address fields for your supporters.
Integrating with WordPress
There’s a very simple way to include WriteToThem on a WordPress site: through this plug-in. Installing it is just a matter of drag and drop.
Start by reading our guidelines of use.
We hope you’ll find WriteToThem to be a simple solution that really helps you rally your supporters to contact their representatives on the issues that matter. Please do drop us a line if you hit any problems, or would like to share your experience of using WriteToThem.
FixMyTransport was launched a month ago. It is now well on its way to listing 1,000 individual complaints, suggestions and requests to the public transport operators of Great Britain.
As the sample size grows, we’re able to see just what provokes the country’s mild-mannered passengers into action. There are the diurnal irritations – the leaky station roof, constant announcements, smelly trains; there is the discomfort of overcrowding and overheated buses.
All of which are important, of course. And in this, FixMyTransport is achieving its aim of allowing people to make their reports to the operators, while at the same time creating small bunches of people who read those reports and think, ‘Hey, me too!’.
But FixMyTransport is not just for the little gripes. It’s uncovering some pretty big issues, too. Prime among these is the issue of accessibility: reports have come in of buses driving away rather than let a wheelchair user on; a disabled passenger who has surmised that it’s easier to invite friends to come to him rather than try to navigate London’s public transport system; a station from which those with restricted mobility can only travel in one direction.
The big question for us is, what happens now? Are these reports making anything better? In some cases, yes.
There is the train that will now stop at intermediate stations, and the pedestrian crossings that are no longer blocked by buses. Little things that’ll make a big difference to the people who reported them. But the pay-off is not always so immediate. Bigger issues are obviously not going to be fixed overnight. And some problems won’t be fixed, for a multitude of reasons – they don’t fit in with the operators’ plans, or they’re not budgeted for, or they just aren’t seen as sufficiently important.
How is FixMyTransport going to crack those? Well, it was set up so that you can show your operator that there is demand, that budgets need to be massaged, or that plans should change. If you’ve used the site, you may well have been on the receiving end of a comment from one of the team, nudging you to spread the word of your campaign, among friends, family, and fellow-passengers.
The fact that people can sign up to your page helps make FixMyTransport different from just contacting the operator directly. We also reckon it’ll make a difference when it comes to getting changes. Consider, for example, the campaign to get increased cycle parking at Cambridge station – with 176 supporters (and still growing every day), our biggest yet. It’s been picked up by local press, talked about on Twitter – and eventually, National Express won’t be able to ignore the public demonstration of a palpable need.
Well, that’s the plan. We know it’s early days, and that FixMyTransport represents a massive sea change for some operators who are not used to interacting openly and online.
If you’ve written an impassioned, well-reasoned request, gathered supporters and spread the word far and wide, and still hit a brick wall, we have other suggestions. FixMyTransport allows us to get you writing to your local councillor, to the local paper, or to relevant groups like Passenger Focus, Transport for All, and the Campaign for Better Transport. These groups have been bashing away at the big problems like accessibility for far longer than we have, and it makes sense to tap into their expertise.
We know that for some issues, it’ll be a long game – just as it’ll be a long game trying to get every operator fully signed-up to the notion of transparent online interaction. But we’ll keep trying, and we hope you will too.
Everyone at mySociety is quite bubbling with excitement at the news that we’re today officially launching FixMyTransport.com , mySociety’s first new core charitable website since WhatDoTheyKnow launched in 2008. We’ve never before launched a site that took so much work to build, or that contained so much data.
What is it for?
FixMyTransport has two goals – one in your face, and the other more subtle.
The first goal, as the site’s name suggests, is to help people get common public transport problems resolved. We’re talking broken ticket machines, gates that should be open and stations without stair-free access. We’ll help by dramatically lowering the barrier to working out who’s responsible, and getting a problem report sent to them – a task that would have been impossible without the help of volunteers who gathered a huge number of operator email addresses for us. Consequently the service works everywhere in Great Britain, our database has over 300,000 stops and routes for train, tube, tram, bus, coach and ferry.
The second goal – the subtle one – is to see if it is possible to use the internet to coax non-activist, non-political people into their first taste of micro-activism. Whilst the site intentionally doesn’t contain any language about campaigning or democracy, we encourage and provide tools to facilitate the gathering of supporters, the emailing of local media, the posting of photos of problems, and the general application of pressure where it is needed. We also make problem reports and correspondence between operators and users public, which we have frequently seen create positive pressure when used on sister sites FixMyStreet and WhatDoTheyKnow.
Who made it?
FixMyTransport was largely built by one remarkable coder – Louise Crow, who started as a volunteer and who is now one of our longest serving core developers. She spent 18 months coding the site almost entirely by herself, wrestling with truly tortuous data problems and collaborating with Birmingham’s fantastic SuperCool design to make it look lovely (you should hire them, they’re great). She also tolerated my ‘aspirational scattergun’ school of project management with remarkable good humour. She really is the king of transport coding.
Credit must also go to mySociety core dev Dave Whiteland, who made the Facebook integration work, despite not having an account himself!
Why is it dedicated to Angie Martin?
Angie Martin was a mySociety coder for an all-too-brief period before she succumbed to cancer at a devastatingly early age. We’re dedicating this site to her in remembrance of a great, self taught perl monger who should still be here.
We’ll be posting further blog posts about the development process, the data challenges, and the overall project philosophy. In the mean time, please keep arms and legs inside the carriage – FixMyTransport is just about to depart.
Members of the team running mySociety’s freedom of information website WhatDoTheyKnow.com also campaign for improvements to freedom of information law.
Volunteer John Cross has been drawing his MP’s attention to a major loophole in the UK’s Freedom of Information Act which means that a company wholly owned by one local authority is subject to the act but a company owned by two local authorities is not. John’s MP, Peter Bottomley, has been convinced that this anomaly in the law does not make sense and has submitted an Early Day Motion calling for the loophole to be closed. The EDM also highlights the fact that currently a company owned 95% or even 99.5% by a single public authority is not subject to the provisions of the act, as only companies owned 100% by a single authority are currently covered.
The text of the motion states:
“That this House notes that section 6 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 with certain exceptions makes companies wholly owned by the Crown or by a single public authority subject to the Act; further notes that a company wholly owned by two or more public authorities or 95 per cent. owned by a single public authority will be outside the scope of the Freedom of Information Act 2000; and calls for the closure of this loophole and for companies owned 90 per cent. or more by any number of public authorities to be subject to the Freedom of Information Act 2000.”
The motion is currently open for other MPs to sign-up to and show their support. If you would like to help increase the number of public bodies that are covered by Freedom of Information legislation please consider writing to your MP, asking them to add their name to the current signatories.
There are many situations where public authorities working together or even setting up jointly owned companies is commendable. Such arrangements can lead to savings though economies of scale and avoid duplication; we may see more such companies set up as a response to economic pressures. What is problematic though is the loss of accountability which currently occurs when public bodies come together and set up these companies without requiring them to follow the highest standards of openness, transparency and accountability.
Examples of Companies Which Would Be Made Subject to FOI if the Loophole was Closed:
- Connexions Nottinghamshire Limited – provides support services to young people and is jointly owned by Nottingham City Council and Nottinghamshire County Council.
- Coventry and Solihull Waste Disposal Company – owned two thirds by Coventry City Council and one third by Solihull MBC
- G-Mex Limited – Through its ownership of Destination Manchester Ltd and investment in Modesole Ltd, Manchester City Council has a 95% shareholding in G-Mex Limited
- Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) – this company is the official agency for the collection, analysis and dissemination of quantitative information about higher education.
- Manchester Airport PLC – the Manchester Airport Group is owned by the ten local authorities of Greater Manchester
- The Russell Group – is owned by, and represents 20 of the UK’s largest universities, the company’s aims as set out in documents filed on incorporation included “to influence and make representations to stakeholders and legislators”
Many housing associations, purchasing consortia, representative bodies and urban development companies are among the organisations which would be required to operate in a more transparent manner should this loophole be closed.
On Saturday John Cross and Richard Taylor, two volunteers who work on mySociety’s freedom of information website WhatDoTheyKnow.com, gave a workshop on FOI to a meeting of activists from Republic, an organisation which campaigns for an elected head of state in the UK.
mySociety and WhatDoTheyKnow are non-partisan and don’t get involved in campaigning except in specific areas relating to openness and transparency. That said, members of the WhatDoTheyKnow team are be happy to consider invitations from any groups wishing to hold a workshop discussing freedom of information.
Many of those present at Saturday’s event were active campaigners on a wide range of subjects ranging from human rights to fair trade as well as having an interest in constitutional reform. The FOI workshop was oversubscribed with the majority of those present at the event deciding to attend the session. Unlike a previous workshop held at OpenTech where most attendees had made an FOI request themselves prior to the event, at this workshop all but one had not done so.
The Royals and FOI
Given the audience, the status of the royals with respect to FOI was particularly pertinent. The FOI act exempts information if it relates to: “communications with Her Majesty, with other members of the Royal Family or with the Royal Household, or the conferring by the Crown of any honour or dignity”. This exemption does not apply though if it is determined that it is in the public interest for the information to be released. The requirement for this public interest test is under threat as the Prime Minister has been moving to strengthen the restrictions on releasing information related to the Royal family. On the 10th of June 2009 in a speech to Parliament on Constitutional Renewal Gordon Brown said:
…we have considered the need to strengthen protection for particularly sensitive material, and there will be protection of royal family and Cabinet papers as part of strictly limited exemptions.
Following that speech BBC journalist Martin Rosenbaum obtained a statement from the Ministry of Justice clarifying that in practice what Gordon Brown’s words meant was:
… the relevant exemption in the Freedom of Information Act will be made absolute for information relating to communications with the Royal Household that is less than 20 years’ old.
In FOI jargon an “absolute exemption” is one not subject to a public interest test.
Even with the law as it stands it is not easy to obtain information on how the royals are, or are attempting to, influence government. For example John Cross has asked the Ministry of Justice to supply him with copies of correspondence they had received from the Queen and Prince of Wales. They rejected his request on the grounds that the public interest in non-disclosure exceeded the public interested in disclosure; as well as suggesting exemptions relating to “information provided in confidence” and “personal information” also applied.
The Royal Household’s position on FOI
The Royal Household is not subject to the freedom of information act; though it has made a statement on the subject saying:
Despite its exemption from the FOI Acts, the Royal Household’s policy is to provide information as freely as possible in other areas, and to account openly for its use of public money.
WhatDoTheyKnow’s policy is to include such organisations which have indicated they are willing to voluntarily comply with the act to the site. While we list The Royal Household, at the time of writing no-one has yet used the facility to request information.
Using WhatDoTheyKnow for Campaigning
While we stress the importance of keeping freedom of information requests focused, FOI is a powerful tool for campaigners. We were asked if it would be possible for a group like Republic to set up an account on WhatDoTheyKnow for their campaign? The answer to this is: “Yes! – WhatDoTheyKnow wants to encourage groups to use the site”. The information commissioner has confirmed that it is acceptable to use the name of a “corporate body” when making a FOI request, that’s a broad term which encompasses many organisations, groups and charities.
Republic themselves use FOI extensively and often generate major national news stories as a result of responses to their requests. They want to be able to either offer journalists exclusive stories or write a press release based on information released. They can’t do this if the story gets out first via WhatDoTheyKnow so would be interested in an ability to make requests initially in private. mySociety and WhatDoTheyKnow have been considering an option for journalists to be able to make hidden requests via the site. Such a feature could potentially generate an income stream for the site as well as encourage a greater proportion of FOI requests to be made via it. Once the article had been published then the FOI correspondence could be opened up to the public providing access to the source material backing up the story.
As well as meeting those who use, or might want to use, the site to make requests WhatDoTheyKnow also wants to engage positively with public authorities; we see them as important users of our service too. Developer Francis Irving represented the site at the FOI Live conference for information professionals in June and will be speaking at the Freedom of Information Scotland conference in December.
As the decisive voting day dawns, mySociety has eight full or partial endorsements of our 3 Principles from possible candidates for Speaker of the Commons. We hope you take a look at what they said in full on their TheyWorkForYou pages. Just five possible candidates didn’t reply in writing, or at all – those absentees being Patrick Cormack, Sylvia Heal, Margaret Beckett, Parmijit Dhanda and Ann Widdecombe (who did phone, but doesn’t seem to have followed up with email). Interestingly, the five non-respondants included both candidates whose offices don’t accept email (Beckett and Cormack).
The last time MPs voted for a speaker, the one candidate who didn’t show at the hustings went on to win. Let’s hope MPs learned the lesson of voting for a candidate who isn’t willing to stand up and be counted when it comes to the issues that make their job so critical…
A few days ago mySociety asked the known possible candidates for Speaker to endorse 3 principles relating to making Parliament more transparent on the Internet.
We’ve now had endorsements which you can read on the individual pages of Sir George Young, Sir Menzies Campbell, Frank Field, Tony Wright and Sir Alan Beith , which until Parmijit Dhanda declared this morning, represented endorsement by 50% of the possible field. We also just recieved a typically frank and interrogative phonecall from Ann Widdecombe, who will be writing a formal response soon.
So, come on, John Bercow, Alan Haselhurst, Patrick Cormack, Sylvia Heal, and Chris Mullin. What’s holding up your replies? The days counter on your pages is telling the world how quick you are to respond…
Update 2: Chris Mullin has told us he is ‘not a candidate’.
Update 3: Sir Alan Haselhurst has also endorsed.
Update 4 – Speaker Election Day: And Sir Michael Lord endorses too.