1. Stop the bombing of civilians, with WriteToThem

    Humanity & Inclusion is a charity working to combat the injustices faced by people with disabilities and vulnerable populations in situations of poverty and exclusion, conflict and disaster.

    Their recent campaign, ‘Stop Bombing Civilians’, encourages supporters to protest the bombardment of innocent citizens in areas of conflict like Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Afghanistan.

    As their website explains, when explosive weapons are used in populated areas, 90% of casualties are civilians. Many are left injured or disabled with their lives and livelihoods completely ruined — surely all would agree that this is not a just or desired outcome of bombardment, no matter what your view on the conflicts generally.

    And so we were gratified to learn that WriteToThem, our ‘contact your MP’ service, is playing a part in this campaign.

    A toolkit for speaking out

    Humanity & Inclusion have put together a set of actions that supporters can take, from signing a petition to taking a selfie and sharing it on social media — or writing to your MP.

    “WriteToThem was the obvious choice.”

    And that’s where we came in: this last action is managed through integrating WriteToThem on the charity’s campaign page (something that any campaign can do, for free).

    We asked Tom Shelton from Humanity & Inclusion to explain more about how they used our service within their integrated campaign.

    Up to date contacts

    Tom explained that a central part of the campaign is the petition, and it is easy enough for them to run petitions by using the forms on their own website.

    However, when they’re asking supporters to directly email MPs, it’s just too complex to maintain and implement the dataset of politicians’ contacts themselves.

    “Yes, this data is publicly available, but like many small organisations, we have no capacity for maintaining its integrity”.

    Flexible and free

    So the charity looked around to see what tools were available.

    “There are some impressive tools out there, but most of them are pretty expensive given our modest needs. In previous years, we have used a relatively low cost paid tool for this type of ‘email your MP’ campaign.

    “We needed a tool that was simple and safe for our supporters to use.”

    “However, given that this new campaign was quite targeted, we were expecting a relatively low volume of emails, so we needed something that was easy to implement on our website, and we didn’t want to make any investment in a paid tool that would involve setup costs.

    “We also wanted to avoid an ongoing subscription cost as we knew that our campaign would probably be paused at various points and then re-activated later (say, during elections, parliamentary recess etc).

    “In particular, we needed a tool that was simple and safe for our supporters to use, and would help them to approach MPs in a way that is appropriate and would get the best response.

    “Based on this, WriteToThem was the obvious choice.”

    For all levels of coding knowledge

    How easy was it to add the tool to their website?

    Tom says that, for anyone with basic web skills, the postcode box option is very simple to set up.

    “The more complex integration is also quite straightforward, but due to time constraints, we opted to integrate the postcode finder widget.

    “The documentation on the WriteToThem website is excellent.”

    “This fitted nicely in with our website and immediately worked. The documentation on the WriteToThem website is excellent, as is the guidance for how best to use the tool for effective campaigns.”

    Humanity & Inclusion are actually a great example of an organisation who have read the guidelines and included them into their campaigning plans: if you visit the ’email your MP’ page of their campaign, you’ll see that they encourage you to write messages in your own words, while providing inspiration for some of the points that might be included.

    This is because WriteToThem blocks mass copies of identical messages, based on evidence that these tend to be regarded as a nuisance by politicians, rather than having the desired effect.

     

    Thank you very much to Tom and Humanity & Inclusion for sharing their experience of using WriteToThem as one part of a simple but effective online campaign.

    And now, if you have been convinced of their cause, we suggest that you take advantage of their campaign pages, and email your MP.


    Image: ©Peter Biro/HI
    Nada, 10, was injured in a bombing with her father in Mosul. As a result of her injuries her leg was amputated below the knee and she will need jaw surgery to help make eating less difficult.

  2. Introducing WhatDoTheyKnow Projects

    With the aim of making large scale Freedom of Information investigations easier for community newsrooms and campaigning organisations, we’ve spent the first half of 2020 developing collaboration tools for WhatDoTheyKnow to speed up and bring others into the FOI management process.

    In an initial pilot, 17 contributors saved a journalist 6.5 hours by taking on half of the work of managing responses to requests.

    We’re actively looking to partner with membership-driven news organisations or impactful campaign groups to run further pilot projects to help refine the features. If that’s you, please get in touch.

    FOI can be hard without dedicated tools

    We know FOI can be hard work, especially when you make large batch requests that return a huge amount of data.

    While our Pro tools make life easier, much of the work simply involves triaging whether you got a response or just an automated acknowledgement, and whether the authority actually released the information you requested.

    After that, you then need to sift through various different formats of data, different understandings of the questions, and follow up with clarifications.

    All this comes before you can start analysing the data to build up a narrative for a story.

    A compelling membership proposition

    News organisations are increasingly looking for sustainability by offering memberships – where you pay a monthly fee to support the organisation – instead of relying on advertising revenue to support themselves.

    Memberships are still a relatively unproven and unexplored area, and organisations are still in the process of discovery over what makes someone want to pay for their news output. Is it just being able to read the stories, or do people want more involvement?

    There’s evidence to suggest that members do want to get more involved.

    Crowdsourcing some of the work of the FOI process from the membership presents an opportunity to help take some of the load off journalists, while also bringing members into the reporting process so that they value the final output more.

    Many hands make light work

    With this new functionality, once you’ve made your requests – either individually or as part of a batch – they can be added to a Project. Contributors can then be invited to the project where they are briefed on what the project is about and the tasks they can help with.

    Screenshot of Project Homepage

    Helping to classifying responses

    When you’re making FOI requests, each response to each request needs to be read to establish whether the authority has provided the information asked for – a process that is difficult to automate, given the huge variety of language that can be deployed by authorities. With large batch requests this can be a time-consuming process.

    Projects creates a pool of responses that need classifying that contributors can work through to take some of the onus off the project owner.

    2up of Project Classify page

    Contributors read the original FOI request and latest response, and then classify its current status appropriately. This doesn’t take much specialist understanding of FOI, so it’s a really easy way to get lots of people to help out.

    Helping to extract data

    In larger FOI investigations requesters are usually looking to build up a dataset so that they can compare responses from different authorities.

    This usually involves lots of spreadsheets, copy & paste, and hours of hard work.

    Projects provides dedicated tools to help build this dataset by creating a pool of requests that contributors can extract data points from using structured forms.

    Allowing contributors to help build up a dataset that will be used for real-life reporting and research helps them feel more directly involved and connected to the organisation, hopefully adding value to the membership proposition.

    Screenshot of Project Extract page

    Project owners are then able to download the crowdsourced dataset to investigate, using their analysis tools of choice.

    Screenshot of downloaded Dataset

    What we learned from our pilot

    In our pilot project contributors took on 50% of the classification tasks, accounting for 57% of the 14.8 hours overall spent classifying, saving the journalist around 6.5 hours of the administrative work required before she could start reviewing the data releases. This is a clear indication that crowdsourcing key parts of the FOI investigation process can save a significant amount of time.

    The journalist we worked with was enthusiastic about using the Projects interface again in the future, even if she wouldn’t be inviting external contributors. She expressed that it would be ideal to collaborate with interns to help sift through classifications and responses.

    With an 82% conversion rate from joining to taking action and nearly 40% of contributors returning for more than one session there’s clearly an appetite from contributors to get involved and help out. The contributors we interviewed understood that by helping with menial tasks, they were allowing the journalist more time to focus on work which required specialist expertise.

    A potential for global benefit

    Through the Nesta Future News Fund we worked with openDemocracy to design and develop WhatDoTheyKnow Projects to support this collaboration, and ran a pilot collaborative project made up from a batch of over 800 FOI requests.

    Projects is of course built into Alaveteli – the platform that powers WhatDoTheyKnow and many other FOI sites around the world, so it’s not just going to be of use in the UK, but for every jurisdiction where an Alaveteli site is utilising the Pro add-on.

    Image: Duy Pham

  3. Help Privacy International discover how the police are accessing your online activity

    You may remember our recent post on the surveillance techniques in use by police forces, as investigated by the campaign group Privacy International.

    Several of you tweeted or commented that you were concerned to read of these new technologies. Well, here’s a way that you can get involved in finding out more.

    Privacy International are asking people to submit an FOI request to their local police force, to enquire whether they are using cloud extraction technology.

    Sounds fluffy? The reality is a bit more chilling. Cloud extraction technology allows the police to gain access from a citizen’s mobile phone to cloud based services such as their email, browser activity, and social media. So, if you are stopped and your phone is examined then handed back, surveillance might not stop there. Even after the phone is returned, using this tech police can monitor your online activity on an ongoing basis, seeing what you search for, trawling through your social media posts, and even accessing your location data.

    Whether or not you’ve ever been detained by the police, you might like to know whether this sort of surveillance is in action in your own local neighbourhood. And that’s where FOI comes in.

    To make everything as easy as possible for you, Privacy International have used pre-filled FOI requests* and provided the wording you should include. You can also see which forces have already been contacted, so as not to waste time making duplicate requests. Here’s where to get started.

    Camilla Graham Wood, a Legal Officer at Privacy International, is clear about the benefits WhatDoTheyKnow has brought to their campaigning: “Using WhatDoTheyKnow we have created a way for members of the public to quickly and easily contact their local police force and ask them about intrusive surveillance tech. We were able to embed this on our own website and to pre-fill certain boxes as well as adding a tag so we can follow the progress of the campaign.

    “Engaging the public in this way shows the level of public interest in policing technologies and introduces those who might not have used Freedom of Information request before to this valuable transparency tool”.

    *If you’re running a campaign and you’d like to know how to set up something similar, take a look at this blog post where Gemma explained it all, back in 2016.

    Image: Gilles Lambert

  4. FragDenStaat: a lighthearted approach with a serious mission

    FragDenStaat (“Ask The State”) is Germany’s FOI site, running since 2011.

    Having always provided a platform for the general public to submit FOI requests, the organisation recently made the decision to focus more on the campaigning side of their activities. By using pre-filled FOI requests and encouraging their supporters to send them, FragDenStaat can harness the power of numbers.

    As Project Leader Arne Semsrott explains: “We are trying to show the possibilities of FOI, using it together as a group or movement with a shared goal, not just as separate individuals”.

    It’s an approach they used in a campaign to uncover the hygiene ratings of restaurants (which, unlike the UK, are not routinely published in Germany) — users were invited to file a pre-written request to the relevant authorities, and over 20,000 such requests were made, then the responses published. It’s hoped that doing so will bring about change — FragDenStaat say, “The platform will provide transparency until the authorities do it themselves”.

    More recently, a similar campaign sought to reveal the facts behind the herbicide glyphosate (aka Roundup). It began when FragDenStaat requested a study from the German Federal Institute that stated that the weedkiller “probably” isn’t linked to cancer.

    “We were told not to publish it”, said Arne. “So we published it”.

    This mischievous approach is one of FragDenStaat’s defining qualities, but there’s always a serious point behind it. In this case: “We were told that we weren’t allowed to publish this report, but through FOI, we – and therefore anyone – is allowed to have it. It’s ridiculous.”

    This is also an issue which we sometimes come across at WhatDoTheyKnow, where responses come complete with a generic footer prohibiting the publication of the information. Like FragDenStaat we think there’s a good argument against this. Freedom of Information law in the UK as well as in Germany is “applicant blind”, so anyone can request the same document and get a copy of it. That being so, it is more efficient to publish it online, and it saves taxpayers’ money since the authorities aren’t having to respond to multiple requests for the same information.

    The German Federal Institute thought differently, however, and FragDenStaat were taken to court for copyright violation.

    Officially, the report couldn’t be shared: what now? Arne continues the story: “So we built a one-click mechanism where anyone could make the same FOI request. Within two weeks, 45,000 people had requested it. The Institute had never had so many emails and didn’t know how to cope.

    “We know this because we then requested the internal communications around how they were handling it. They developed an online solution with a log-in code to prevent people spreading the report further. We then developed some code to automatically log you in and download it.

    “The legal proceedings are still pending but we would like to see a judgment by the Court of Justice on copyright vs FOI.

    “If we lose the case it might mean that copyright gets used as a reason for denial in lots more requests. And if this happens, we need to make so much of a fuss that it becomes an unattractive proposition to do so. What we have achieved so far, though, is that we are pretty certain that most public authorities don’t want to confront us that way anymore.”

    Since turning into more of a campaigning organisation, FragDenStaat are involved in more than 45 lawsuits. That might seem daunting to some small organisations, but Arne thinks differently:

    “Over time we have learnt that one of the biggest tools we have to change the practice of FOI is strategic litigation. We have won most of our cases and are always keen to tackle legal questions that have not been addressed in German courts before. We have the feeling that the FragDenStaat community likes our approach and there are enough people who are willing to donate for our legal costs”.

    FragDenStaat consistently bring an inventive angle to their campaigns, which sometimes borders on cheekiness. Asked about this, Arne replies: “To most people, files and documents appear to be the most boring thing on earth (which of course they aren’t!), so we feel that we need a bit of fun to attract people to the topic. And actually it’s way more fun for us that way.

    “I do believe that our actions have forced authorities to take us seriously. There are of course people who are not fans of our work, but there are quite a few FragDenStaat supporters among authorities – even if they don’t show that publicly”.

    Another campaign focuses on migration politics across Europe, and specifically Frontex, the border force. FragDenStaat have been working in collaboration with Luisa Izuzquiza at AccessInfo to file requests and build up a picture of human rights violations towards migrants: “You can file FOI requests for Frontex documents anywhere in Europe, so we’re asking in different countries for ‘serious incident’ reports: these will tell you of human rights violations”.

    This campaign, too, has involved FragDenStaat filing a lawsuit, this time in the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg. The hope is that it will clarify the degree to which Frontex is open to public scrutiny. Again, the costs of litigation are borne by supporters who are encouraged to chip in with a small donation of a few Euros, ideally on an ongoing monthly basis.

    Arne says, “EU migration politics is a topic that I have worked on for a long time now. I think that it’s heavily underreported, especially since Frontex has gained a lot of power and budget increase over the last few years. By talking to activists in the field, we learned what kind of documents might be produced by the agency on a regular basis and we began systematically requesting them”.

    Shockingly, the reports released show that Frontex are well aware of such abuse but close their eyes to it.

    “A report about Libyan refugee camp said it had ‘concentration camp-like conditions’ – and you can be sure that if a German person says that, it is serious. It proves they are aware of the conditions, even though they are doing nothing about them”.

    There have been results to this campaign: the European Commission has now issued a statement saying that they would investigate the claims.

    Arne Semsrott spoke at AlaveteliCon, mySociety’s conference on FOI and technology, in September 2019.

    Arne is one of the folk behind FragDenStaat, which is the German equivalent of our own WhatDoTheyKnow. Unlike many of the FOI sites around the world, FragDenStaat is not run on the Alaveteli platform, but on bespoke software that was inspired by WhatDoTheyKnow in the days before our codebase was made easier to install.

    Incidentally, if you are running a campaign, you can also use pre-written requests in tandem with Alaveteli sites, including WhatDoTheyKnow. Instructions are here.

    Image: Jen Bramley

  5. FOI: one part of the fight against the ‘lose-lose’ LOBO loans to local councils

    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 its 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

  6. Truth & justice for haemophiliacs: WhatDoTheyKnow and the contaminated blood scandal

    Nothing gives us greater pleasure than to learn that one of our websites has been of help in uncovering an injustice or righting a wrong. So when WhatDoTheyKnow user Jason Evans mentioned how he’d been using the site in campaigning for victims of the contaminated blood scandal of the 1970s and 1980s, we were eager to hear the whole story — which he told us in fascinating detail.

    Read on to find out how Jason learned the ropes of submitting an FOI request, and how one thing led to another… until he was looking at a group legal action against the government.


    I’m Jason Evans, founder of Factor 8 – The Independent Haemophilia Group.

    In short, I’ve spent the last few years trying to achieve truth and justice for haemophiliacs and their families affected by the contaminated blood scandal of the 1970s and 80s. My father, Jonathan Evans, was a victim of the scandal. It’s not my goal to go into the ins and outs of all that here, but instead to explain how WhatDoTheyKnow has been an essential tool for our campaign (if you wish to learn more about the scandal itself, you can visit our website).

    It was early 2016 when I decided to start hunting down evidence relating to the contaminated blood scandal for myself. At this time there was already some evidence in the National Archives. It was a good start, but I felt there must be more. Government ministers were maintaining the same line in Parliament… that all the evidence had been transferred to the National Archive or it had been destroyed. This was widely accepted as true.

    To this day I don’t exactly know why, but where many had accepted this situation (and understandably so), I simply refused to — or, at least, if it was true I was going to make sure of it.

    After a quick search I found WhatDoTheyKnow. I instantly saw that this was going to be a must-have tool for what I wanted to do. I made my first FOI request on the site in April 2016, which in terms of the site’s functionality was super easy, but I definitely had a lot to learn.

    In hindsight, my first FOI requests were badly framed, too broad and lacking in specifics: the vast majority were coming back as either “Information not held” or with any number of exemptions which was all very frustrating. It felt like I was getting nowhere.

    Over time however, I began to refine my requests and learn best practice by reviewing the successful requests made by others, even those that had no connection at all with what I was doing. I read the Freedom of Information Act and familiarised myself with the exemptions, costs and what my rights were.

    Things began to change: some of my requests were becoming partially or completely successful and all the while I was reviewing more evidence from the National Archives and other sources.

    Things really began to snowball in 2017 when one day I began to cross-reference the government’s own filing system in my own spreadsheet. Noticing certain markings they had used allowed me to identify specifically what files were missing and FOI them using the government’s own internal reference system.

    This strategy was almost flawless and has revealed tens of thousands of documents which have as yet never seen the light of day, and this work remains ongoing.

    In May 2017 I brought a legal action against the government based on the evidence I had seen; shortly after this became a Group Legal Action which presently involves up to 1,000 claimants.

    Just one week after the Group Litigation Order was lodged at the High Court in July 2017, the Prime Minister Theresa May announced that a full UK-wide public inquiry would be held into the contaminated blood scandal.

    When I reflect back on that time, I don’t think there was any single person or action that got us there: it was a culmination of momentum. We always say “the stars aligned” when talking about it within the community and I think that’s pretty much what happened.

    It would be nice to say that this was all some master plan but it wasn’t really; it was a venture taken out of a mixture of curiosity, determination and the simplest sense of wanting to find out the truth. WhatDoTheyKnow helped me to do just that, to get that bit closer to the truth.

    In November 2017 Sky News ran an exclusive story regarding a Cabinet Office memo I unearthed, in no short part thanks to WhatDoTheyKnow.

    The journey to that Cabinet Office memo began with this FOI request.

    Eventually, the file I was requesting was made available in the National Archive as a result of that request. Upon checking the file in person there was a piece of paper inside with a note written in pencil saying that one of the memos had been removed, and it gave a reference number. I recorded this information, then FOI’d the Cabinet Office for it. They digitised the file and indeed it was there. Less than ten days after the FOI response we had the story on Sky News (and here’s a summary video).

    I had help from a lot of people, in particular Des Collins and Danielle Holliday at Collins Solicitors, my friend Andrew March for his encouragement, assistance and ideas, as well as others who may not wish to be named.

    I always remain aware that I’m doing the work others might have done, if it were not for the fact that they died far too young as a result of the scandal — or have been driven into secrecy for fear of the stigma associated with it.

    The public inquiry is due to begin shortly and the legal case remain ongoing. I would like to thank WhatDoTheyKnow again for providing such an excellent platform with endless possibilities.

    Thanks so much to Jason for sharing this remarkable story. We wish him the best of luck as the case progresses.

    Image: Raw Pixel (Unsplash)

  7. Taxis, wheelchairs and local authorities: an update

    Last year, we highlighted a bureaucratic loophole that allows taxi drivers to discriminate against passengers in wheelchairs.

    As WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer Doug Paulley discovered through multiple Freedom of Information requests at the time, the lack of a simple piece of administration meant that taxi drivers could refuse to take wheelchair users, or charge them extra, with complete impunity.

    New legislation set a fine of up to £1,000 for such behaviour, but it can only be applied if the local council has a list of designated list of wheelchair-accessible taxis. Back in April 2017, Doug’s research indicated that 59% of authorities had no such list, nor a plan to create one.

    A year later, Doug has revisited the research, and while that figure has gone down slightly, there is still cause for concern. Doug explains:

    As it is now more than one year since sections 165-167 of the Equality Act 2010 were commenced (the provisions designed to combat taxi drivers’ discrimination against wheelchair users) I have updated my research into its implementation and efficacy.

    No driver has faced any enforcement action under S165 of the Act, anywhere in the country. I find it difficult to believe that there haven’t been any offences committed under S165 of the Act. I have experienced several myself. I think that the fact that there have been no such enforcement actions suggests a fundamental problem with the (frankly) clunky implementation of the provisions of the Act.

    As of October / November when I submitted my follow-up Freedom of Information requests, only 35% of local authorities had implemented the new provisions in their area, and only a further 16% (total 51%) of authorities intended to do so by now. Given that the Department for Transport’s statutory guidance on such recommended that all authorities implement the provisions by October 2017, this is concerning.

    Many of the authorities that have attempted to implement the legislation have failed to comply with the fine print, likely making the provisions unenforceable in their area. As for the government’s good practice recommendations that councils e.g. publish the size of wheelchair each taxi can take — no councils are doing that.

    I am sure that when Baroness Deech told the Secretary of State that he was defying Parliament’s will by failing to commence these provisions, she expected to have a much greater impact on discrimination. I’m really disappointed that this has sadly not been borne out in reality.

    You can find lots more information about this issue, along with all the facts and figures, on Doug’s website. There’s also an invitation to contact your local councillors if you’d like to draw their attention to this issue.

    Image: Tam Le (CC by-nc-nd/2.0)

  8. ATOS, Capita, PIP… and some persistent FOI requests

    An article in the current Private Eye Magazine has drawn our attention to the use that disability campaigner John Slater is making of our Freedom of Information service WhatDoTheyKnow.com.

    In December 2016, Mr Slater asked the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to release the monthly “management information reports” received from contractors ATOS and Capita in relation to their work assessing eligibility for Personal Independence Payment benefits.

    Mr Slater has pursued his request for over a year, and wasn’t put off by an initial response which stated that the information requested wasn’t held, nor a subsequent response refusing to release the material citing the contractors’ “commercial interests”.

    In December 2017, a year after Mr Slater made his request, the Information Commissioner ordered the DWP to release the material, stating “The Commissioner has not been satisfied that disclosing the withheld information would be likely to damage the commercial standing of ATOS and Capita”. The Information Commissioner dismissed the DWP’s concerns that the information requested could be “misinterpreted in ways that could lead to reputational damage to both the Department and the PIP Providers as well as prejudice the efficient conduct of public affairs”.

    The Information Commissioner’s decision notice was highly critical of the way the DWP had handled the case, noting the use of “standard paragraphs” rather than a discussion of the public interest tailored to the material in question, and DWP failing to engage promptly with the Information Commissioner, thus causing further delay.

    The DWP have not yet complied with the Information Commissioner’s decision; they have appealed and a tribunal hearing is scheduled for April 2018.

    This request is far from the only one showing Mr Slater’s persistence in pursuing the release of information held by the Department for Work and Pensions.

    A request for Project Assessment Review Reports for the Universal Credit Programme that Mr Slater made in April 2016 was initially accepted and the department said they were considering it. Mr Slater chased up the lack of a response in June, and again in August and September, but when, six months after his original request, Mr Slater chased them again in October they deemed his persistence to be vexatious and rejected the request.

    That request has now been further rejected by the DWP, who say that the information “if released would, or would be likely to, prejudice the free and frank provision of advice or which would otherwise, or would be likely otherwise to, prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs.”

    Mr Slater has referred that decision to the Information Commissioner too.

    On the 5th of December 2017, Debbie Abrahams MP, the Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, deployed the Parliamentary procedure of a motion for “an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty” to seek the release of the documents to the Work and Pensions Committee. MPs agreed the motion unanimously.

    The committee are currently in correspondence with the Government over redaction, and arrangements for access to the material.

    The committee chair, Frank Field MP, has suggested that:

    A couple of copies would be made. These copies will be kept securely and members would be invited to come to the Committee office to read them. No-one else, other than the committee members, will be invited to make this journey to our Committee office and members will not be able to make copies, or take notes, about the documents.

    – so despite the decision by the House of Commons the public still might not get to see the material via that route.

    Mr Slater has been in touch with us and told us he finds the service provided by WhatDoTheyKnow extremely helpful when submitting and managing FOI requests.

    He said that the ease of submitting requests and built in workflow that keeps track of time, reminding users that a response should have been issued, is invaluable. He also likes that a single platform exists where information obtained by its users is made available for everyone, as that embodies the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act.


    Image: John-Mark Kuznietsov (Unsplash)

  9. Is your local authority making life difficult for wheelchair users?

    If you’re in a wheelchair, it can be tricky enough getting around. So it’s particularly disappointing to learn that some taxi firms charge wheelchair passengers extra, and that some drivers refuse to take passengers in wheelchairs at all.

    If you’re thinking ‘surely that’s illegal’ — well, it is. Only from quite recently, though: it was last April that a law came in which imposed a £1,000 fine for drivers who refused or charged extra for those in wheelchairs.

    But there’s a complication. This fine can only be imposed by councils who keep a designated list of all wheelchair-accessible public hire vehicles: no list, no fines.

    Does it matter? Well, that depends on how many councils are intending to compile the list. And as WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer Doug Paulley knows very well, there’s one good way to find out information from every local authority: via a Freedom of Information request.

    Doug used WhatDoTheyKnow to submit FoI requests to all 366 taxi licensing councils, and Transport for London, who administer taxi licensing on behalf of all the London boroughs. The results of his research can be seen in full here, or you can quickly check your own local council on this map.

    As indicated, if your council is one of the 59% who, by not keeping a list, are unable to implement the anti-discrimination law, you might like to contact your councillors to let them know how you feel about that.

    Map of councils keeping/not keeping an S167 list by Doug Paulley


    Header image: Derek Mindler (CC by/2.0)

  10. Alaveteli for campaigners: How to create pre-written requests for your supporters

    If you are using Freedom of Information for a campaign, and you need to request the same information from several different bodies, or a variety of information from one body, it can be useful to put your supporters to work for you.

    We recently profiled the Detention Logs project, which is using Freedom of Information requests to uncover conditions in Australia’s detention centres. Anyone can use the information already uncovered to request further documents or clarify ambiguous facts.

    One aspect we didn’t mention is that, in order to make this process as quick and simple as possible, Detention Logs provides users with a pre-written FOI request which they can tweak as necessary before sending off to the relevant authority. This is linked to from a button on the Detention Logs website

    This nifty bit of functionality could be useful for all kinds of campaigns. If yours is one of them, read on to discover how to set it up.

    Instructions

    This method will work on any Alaveteli site that is running a recent version of the code: for our example, we’re using RightToKnow but you could substitute WhatDoTheyKnow.com or any of these.

    Here’s an example of a pre-filled request — follow the link to see what it looks like on the page:

    As you can see, this unwieldy web address contains all the information that RightToKnow, Australia’s Freedom of Information site, needs in order to create a pre-filled request.The URL tells it who the request should go to, what the title of the request is, and what should go in the main body.

    It’s quite simple to create these yourself. Just build the URL up in steps:

    1. Begin by telling the site that this is a new request: https://www.righttoknow.org.au/new/
    2. Add a forward slash (/) and then the body you want the request to be sent to (exactly as it is written in the url of the body’s page of the website): https://www.righttoknow.org.au/new/nsw_police_force
    3. Add a question mark: This tells the website that we are going to introduce a ‘parameter string’. Now our URL looks like this: https://www.righttoknow.org.au/new/nsw_police_force?
    4. Input a title: we need to indicate that the next part should go into the ‘title’ field, like this: https://www.righttoknow.org.au/new/nsw_police_force?title= and then dictate what the title should be: https://www.righttoknow.org.au/new/nsw_police_force?title=Police%20brutality Notice that if there is a space between words, it should be shown as %20. To make the process of encoding the URLs easier, you can use an encoder tool like this one: http://meyerweb.com/eric/tools/dencoder/
    5. Input the body of the request, again using ‘%20’ between each word. This is where your URL can become very long! We use the parameter default_letter and the salutation (Dear…) and signoff (Yours…) are automatically wrapped around this by the site, so there’s no need to include them:

    Remember to include a ‘=’ after each parameter name (e.g. title=) and to separate parameters with an ‘&’.

    So, there you have it. A customised URL that you can set up if you need supporters to send a pre-written request to a specified body or bodies.

    As mentioned above, the Detention Logs project used this method to help their supporters request detention centre incident reports, attaching a different URL to each report so that the title would contain the relevant report number. To see the technical details of how they set this up, visit their GitHub page.

    More parameters

    Here are some other parameters that can be used in addition to the ones above:

    • body – This is an alternative to default_letter which lets you specify the entire body of the request including the salutation and signoff.
    • tags – This allows you to add a space-separated list of tags, so for example you can identify any requests made through your campaign or which refer to the same topic. For example, the Detention Logs project used tags like this: &tags=detentionlogs%20incident-number%3A1-2PQQH5

    A tag can have a ‘name’ and an optional ‘value’ (created in the form “name:value”). The first tag in the above example is ‘detentionlogs’ (‘name’) and the second tag is ‘incident-number:A1-2PQQH5’ (‘name:value’). The encoder tool above changes the colon to ‘%3’.

    If you use this pre-written request tool we’d love to hear about it, so please get in touch if you do.

    Image: Gabriel Saldana (CC 2.0)