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.”
As we’ve highlighted in recent posts, EveryPolitician is an open dataset.
We’ve always been strong advocates of open data, but there’s no doubt that it come with its own challenges. For example, when data is freely and openly available, without even the need for registration, we have very little idea of who is accessing it. That, in turn, makes it hard to prove that the project is having impact…and subsequently to find funders to support the maintenance of the project.
So we were fortunate that user research interviews for the Democratic Commons led us to Andrew from New/Mode. New/Mode deliver advocacy and engagement tools that are used by hundreds of the top campaign, nonprofits and advocacy organisations around the world.
These tools are connecting people to their representatives, so information is key: specifically, information on who politicians are and how to contact them. And that’s just what EveryPolitician is, in part*, providing for New/Mode’s tools which are used by groups in Australia, Canada, the US and the UK.
We asked Andrew what impacts have been created through New/Mode’s tools, and he told us that:
- In the UK, ONE’s supporters sent 6,500 emails to MPs over the space of a week, helping to successfully pressure MPs to vote for a Sanctions and Anti Money Laundering Bill that increases transparency and cracks down on global corruption.
- In the US, Win Without War used New/Mode tools with EveryPolitician data to block a defence bill that would have given Trump more nuclear access. The Sunrise Movement is currently using New/Mode tools to push for swift action on climate change.
- In Canada, Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East prompted 16,000 emails to Canadian MPs in support of Trudeau’s comments condemning violence against unarmed Palestinian protesters.
We need more of these stories to help us build a picture of who uses EveryPolitician and why it is important, to make a case for why we should keep working on it. As mySociety’s Mark Cridge outlined in a previous post, we’ve recognised that EveryPolitician can only become sustainable at scale as part of a wider community effort, which is why we are collaborating with Wikidata — but we still need the resources to do that.
Any ideas, or suggestions, please let us know by emailing email@example.com
*PS, In case you were wondering which APIs New/Mode uses, here is a breakdown:
- Currently, Open North’s Represent is providing the bulk of the data for Canadian politicians. But senators’ data and Twitter handles for the MPs and senators are pulled from EveryPolitician.
- For the US, Google Civic does a good job of providing the bulk of information, but again EveryPolitician is used for congressional fax numbers and to fill in any blanks with Google Civic data.
- In the UK, New/Mode are using another mySociety tool, Maplt alongside EveryPolitician. EveryPolitician data is only available for the national level of politicians as yet.
- For Australia where they focus on national politicians, the data is drawn from a mixture of Open Australia and again EveryPolitician.
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.
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
The Freedom of Information Act allows us to keep check on authorities — not least, how they are spending public money.
These sorts of requests can be of particular interest to regional press, who perform a vital function in keeping citizens informed about where their taxes go. Journalists might be applauding good spending; equally they could be uncovering waste or corruption — both narratives are highly relevant in times of budget cuts and austerity.
Here are examples of stories arising from council expenditure requests, covering the length and breadth of the UK.
Spending on administration
It’s often worth scrutinising council expenditure on day to day items like office supplies, furniture or computer hardware.
While stories here may be quite mundane on the face of it, they become more interesting when the question arises of how much is reasonable to spend on these overheads.
In North Warwickshire, the Birmingham Mail reported that over £5,000 went on tea, coffee & biscuits (to be fair, over a period of five years). The story goes as far as to detail each brand of teabag. It’s important, said the council, to offer visitors a decent spread.
That’s as may be, but how about the same region’s County Council splashing out £13,700 on furniture for their leader’s new office — and not from Ikea, by the sounds of it. This story was run by the Rugby Advertiser, and just as with the tea and biscuits, the defence was that it’s important to make visitors comfortable.
But how far does such comfort extend? Let’s consider social functions and parties. Dundee was highlighted in the Courier for its awards bashes, into which a round £266,000 was sunk. Perhaps easier to defend was the same authority’s £150,000 expenditure on tablets and computers.
Spending on infrastructure and services
Fixed penalty notices for littering, often farmed out to third party fine collectors, can be highly contentious. Citizens might be somewhat mollified when they see a boost to their councils’ coffers and some expenditure that directly relates to the misdemeanours in question. In Wirral, for example, the Globe tells how £176,000 from littering fines has been spent on CCTV surveillance, anti-rubbish and fly-tipping campaigns, research and clean-ups.
In Borehamwood, money gleaned from developers within the town paid for £1.7M worth of school expansions, crossroad junctions and traffic calming measures, as reported in the Borehamwood Times.
And then there are the oddities, anomalies or outliers of spending that always make a good story, too. The Scotsman found that fees for taxis to take children to schools that offer subjects they can’t study in their own schools added up to £1M across Scotland.
Spending on staff… and disputes
Of course, every council has staffing costs — it’s how they’re distributed that can make a gripping story for a regional publication like Wokingham Today. When does expenditure on temporary employees, for example, start indicating that permanent staff might have been a better bet? We don’t know the full circumstances, but Wokingham’s £7.8M does seem like an awful lot.
In Norfolk and Suffolk, £200,000’s worth of ‘golden hellos’ to welcome new staff to the area were under scrutiny by the Eastern Daily Press. But that kind of expenditure seems perfectly wholesome when contrasted with Wiltshire’s £275,000 on gagging orders and compromise agreements.
The picture can sometimes be a little more complex than first viewing might suggest. In South Gloucestershire for example, the Bristol Post reports that £15M worth of redundancy payments is expected to save the council money in the long run.
In Birmingham, the Mail had a fine old time trying to get their FOI request responded to, and were finally successful in revealing that overtime paid to binmen in the run-up to a strike amounted to over £1M.
Spending on compensation
We mentioned that expenditure stories can be timely in the current age of austerity — well, not only that, but there’s a particular irony to be found in expenditure that’s potentially caused by austerity measures.
Two recent stories looked at the compensation councils were paying out for damage caused by potholes. Authorities everywhere are making cutbacks to their expenditure on roads, but if this results in payouts that are bigger than the savings involved, there’s obviously a false economy at play.
In Lancashire, the Telegraph discovered that the council had paid over £1M in pothole compensation in one financial year, while in Cambridge the local paper went back as far as 1992 to break down the expenditure year by year.
Have we sparked ideas?
If you are a journalist and you’d like to use Freedom of Information to uncover this kind of story — while keeping your research under wraps until it has been published — check out our WhatDoTheyKnow Pro service. It provides all the tools that you need to pursue your investigations, large or small.
As a regional journalist, you might also find it useful to follow your local council on WhatDoTheyKnow, so you know what information our users are asking for. We’ll send you an email when requests are made to your chosen authority — just click the grey ‘follow’ button on any council’s page.
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.
We’ve talked a lot about our new service for journalists and other professional users of Freedom of Information — but it’s not always the professionals who uncover the news stories.
This week, we mark WhatDoTheyKnow’s tenth anniversary. As part of the celebrations, we thought we’d look back on the news stories that came about because of requests made through the site. Many of these began with an FOI request submitted by a user with no links to the press, and were picked up by news outlets because the response was of public interest.
From the restrictions on what names can be given to a baby in this country, to an accidental torpedo release, and via a geographically-accurate Tube map, it makes for fascinating reading. You can see them all here.
An article in the current Private Eye Magazine has drawn our attention to the use that disability campaigner John Slater is making of our Freedom of Information service WhatDoTheyKnow.com.
In December 2016, Mr Slater asked the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to release the monthly “management information reports” received from contractors ATOS and Capita in relation to their work assessing eligibility for Personal Independence Payment benefits.
Mr Slater has pursued his request for over a year, and wasn’t put off by an initial response which stated that the information requested wasn’t held, nor a subsequent response refusing to release the material citing the contractors’ “commercial interests”.
In December 2017, a year after Mr Slater made his request, the Information Commissioner ordered the DWP to release the material, stating “The Commissioner has not been satisfied that disclosing the withheld information would be likely to damage the commercial standing of ATOS and Capita”. The Information Commissioner dismissed the DWP’s concerns that the information requested could be “misinterpreted in ways that could lead to reputational damage to both the Department and the PIP Providers as well as prejudice the efficient conduct of public affairs”.
The Information Commissioner’s decision notice was highly critical of the way the DWP had handled the case, noting the use of “standard paragraphs” rather than a discussion of the public interest tailored to the material in question, and DWP failing to engage promptly with the Information Commissioner, thus causing further delay.
The DWP have not yet complied with the Information Commissioner’s decision; they have appealed and a tribunal hearing is scheduled for April 2018.
This request is far from the only one showing Mr Slater’s persistence in pursuing the release of information held by the Department for Work and Pensions.
A request for Project Assessment Review Reports for the Universal Credit Programme that Mr Slater made in April 2016 was initially accepted and the department said they were considering it. Mr Slater chased up the lack of a response in June, and again in August and September, but when, six months after his original request, Mr Slater chased them again in October they deemed his persistence to be vexatious and rejected the request.
That request has now been further rejected by the DWP, who say that the information “if released would, or would be likely to, prejudice the free and frank provision of advice or which would otherwise, or would be likely otherwise to, prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs.”
Mr Slater has referred that decision to the Information Commissioner too.
On the 5th of December 2017, Debbie Abrahams MP, the Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, deployed the Parliamentary procedure of a motion for “an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty” to seek the release of the documents to the Work and Pensions Committee. MPs agreed the motion unanimously.
The committee chair, Frank Field MP, has suggested that:
A couple of copies would be made. These copies will be kept securely and members would be invited to come to the Committee office to read them. No-one else, other than the committee members, will be invited to make this journey to our Committee office and members will not be able to make copies, or take notes, about the documents.
– so despite the decision by the House of Commons the public still might not get to see the material via that route.
Mr Slater has been in touch with us and told us he finds the service provided by WhatDoTheyKnow extremely helpful when submitting and managing FOI requests.
He said that the ease of submitting requests and built in workflow that keeps track of time, reminding users that a response should have been issued, is invaluable. He also likes that a single platform exists where information obtained by its users is made available for everyone, as that embodies the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act.
A year ago, we helped Belgian group Anticor launch the Alaveteli site for Belgium, Transparencia.be, and so far it’s been an incredible success. Since launch, the site’s had almost 60,000 visitors and over 375,000 page views— that’s unusually high for an FOI site in its infancy — and they’ve even brought about a change in local FOI law. So how exactly have Anticor achieved so much in such a short time?
We chatted to Claude, a key member of the Transparencia team, to learn more, and the first thing we discovered was that the stellar visitor numbers were actually news to him. That might give us a clue as to one factor in their success: they’ve been far too busy to check their site analytics!
Fortunately we keep track of traffic on all our partners’ sites (where we have permission to do so), and we were glad to be able to pass on the good news. That done, we were keen to ask what exactly brought so many people to the site — and to see what tips other Alaveteli sites might be able to pick up so that they can enjoy the same level of success. (more…)
Code for Croatia are one of many groups around the world who have used our software Alaveteli to set up a Freedom of Information site — ImamoPravoZnati (“We have the right to know”) was launched in 2015 and has processed more than 4,000 requests.
Many organisations might count that a success and leave it there, but Code for Croatia are clearly a little more ambitious. We’ve been interested to hear about their two latest projects.
A platform for consumer complaints
The Alaveteli code was written to send FOI requests to public authorities. But in essence, it’s little more than a system for sending emails to a predetermined list of recipients, and publishing the whole thread of correspondence online.
Change that list of recipients, and you can create a whole new type of site. Reklamacije (“Complaints”) puts the process of making consumer complaints online. It’s early days as yet — the site’s still in the beta phase, during which testers are putting it through its paces. There have been messages about bank closures, insurance policies… and even the inconsistent quality of the quesadillas at a Mexican food chain.
As we’ve often mentioned here on this blog, our FixMyStreet codebase has been put to many different purposes that require map-based reporting, but as far as we’re aware this is the first non-FOI use of Alaveteli so we’ll be watching with interest. Perhaps it might give you ideas about setting up a similar service elsewhere?
Probing travel expenses
Code for Croatia have also launched a campaign asking users to request details of ministers’ travel expenses.
If that sounds familiar, you’ll be remembering that back in January, AccessInfo did much the same with EU Commissioners and their expenses on the European Union FOI site AskTheEU. We can tentatively say that they were successful, too: it’s been announced that the EU expenses will be proactively published every two months. AskTheEU say they welcome the move ‘cautiously’, so let’s see how it all pans out.
The key to both these campaigns is pre-filled requests that make it really simple for supporters to make a request to a specific politician, while ensuring that the requests aren’t duplicated.
That’s something that Gemma explained how to do in this blog post — it’s a massive benefit of the friendly global Alaveteli community that we can all share insights like this, and especially that other groups can try out initiatives that have proved successful.