1. A change in the law for school starters in Scotland — through FOI

    Kids in Scotland can start school at the age of four and a half, if that makes sense for them. The school year begins in August, and any child who turns four from the February before can enter Primary 1.

    But not every child is ready to progress from nursery to school, just because they’ve hit the age when they’re legally able to.

    We spoke to Patricia Anderson from the Give Them Time campaign about how Freedom of Information requests, sent via WhatDoTheyKnow, helped them get the law changed. From 2023, those kids who aren’t quite ready for school will still be able to benefit from more nursery time — and their parents will be able to rest easy that they won’t be charged fees for that extra year.

    A confusing state of affairs

    We began by asking Patricia to explain a bit more about the campaign, and to spell out the underlying issue for us.

    “Give Them Time is a grassroots movement which evolved in 2018 from parents across Scotland sharing their own, often difficult, experiences of applying for a further year of nursery funding for their child”, she told us.

    WhatDoTheyKnow has had an absolutely invaluable impact on the campaign.

    “No child in Scotland is legally required to be formally educated in Scotland until the August after they turn five years old. Therefore, any child still aged four at the school commencement date in August doesn’t need to start school (or be home educated) until the following August a year later.

    “This is set out in the Education (Scotland) Act 1980, section 32, sub-section 3. However, currently only those with January and February birthdays have an automatic entitlement to a free further year of early learning and childcare (nursery) whereas those children who turn five after the school commencement date in August and by 31st December have to apply to their local authority to be considered for this funding.”

    So in other words, while there is a recognition in law that any four-year-olds should have the option to defer, parents have to apply for the relevant funding for all but the youngest (those with birthdays in January or February), but have no certainty that they’ll receive it?

    “Yes”, says Patricia. “There seemed to be a lack of awareness of the legal right to defer any child who hadn’t reached the age of five by the school commencement date, as well as a lot of misinformation being passed around about whether parents could even apply to their local authority for funding for a further year of nursery or not.

    “With this in mind, I set up a Facebook group called Deferral Support Scotland in May 2018 as I felt there wasn’t a central place where parents could go to find out more about deferral options and what the process was for applying for continued nursery funding in their local authority area.

    “Three weeks later, after hearing disturbing stories of parents’ experiences which indicated varied practices across the country, members of the Facebook group decided to set up a campaign for a more transparent, consistent and child-centred approach to so called ‘discretionary’ deferrals. And so, Give Them Time was born.”

    FOI for gathering hard evidence

    As with so many campaigns, Facebook had proved to be an effective space for gathering like-minded folk together, and a catalyst for action. But how did Give Them Time move from Facebook to the use of Freedom of Information requests?

    “We realised from the outset that to be taken seriously, we needed hard evidence of national disparities rather than anecdotes, so that’s when we started submitting FOI requests to all local authorities across the country. We wanted to establish whether the anecdotal accounts could be supported by factual data.”

    WhatDoTheyKnow was very easy to use and the transparency it provided appealed to us, as we felt it would further enhance the credibility of the campaign.

    FOI was just one of the tools used by this savvy campaign, as they realised that data could be well supplemented with parents’ real life stories.

    These testimonies demonstrated the issue well, with one parent saying, “They knew but seem to try to put you off the idea, make statements like ‘they’ll be fine’, etc”.

    Others pointed to the stress and frustration of the bureaucracy and mixed messages they had to navigate, all while contending with worries about what was really best for their own child. Patricia explains how the campaign gathered these comments:

    “We used online surveys to gather evidence about people’s experiences of finding out about and applying to their local authority for continued nursery funding. The quantitative data provided by the FOI responses supported the findings of our qualitative surveys.”

    You can see all the data, qualitative and quantitative, on the Evidence page of the campaign’s website.

    The benefits of using WhatDoTheyKnow

    Using FOI is one thing, but the decision to do so via WhatDoTheyKnow does not always follow — so we were curious to learn what had informed the campaign in doing so.

    This WhatDoTheyKnow website is an absolutely phenomenal tool to have freely available to the public. It helps the public to use FOI legislation in the way it was intended without fear.

    “I discovered WhatDoTheyKnow by chance when searching online for deferral information. It was very easy to use and the transparency it provided appealed to us, as we felt it would further enhance the credibility of the campaign.

    “It’s very easy to share a link to an FOI response on WhatDoTheyKnow rather than search through emails and forward them on. It also removed the fear we had of potentially sharing confidential information by mistake as responses are published by WhatDoTheyKnow on the internet, and councils know this will happen in advance so it removed the onus on us to police this.”

    This was great to hear, as while we’ve heard many benefits to using WhatDoTheyKnow through the years, we don’t think we’ve heard this precise one before. Of course, the ease of publicly linking to a webpage is something that we appreciate, but the added dimension of mitigating the risk of sharing confidential information was a detail we hadn’t considered (and of course, that’s not to say that authorities don’t sometimes make mistakes, but it does add that extra layer of protection, for sure).

    Patricia added that WhatDoTheyKnow was integral to their success:

    “WhatDoTheyKnow has had an absolutely invaluable impact on the campaign. The credibility it helped us to achieve, as well as the actual data provided by the FOI responses, enabled us to successfully lobby the Scottish Government to change the law.

    “On 7 December 2020, the process was started to amend existing legislation so that from August 2023, any four-year-old deferring their primary one start will automatically be entitled to a free further year of early learning and childcare.”

    You can see some of the media coverage of this decision here.

    You should use it, too

    Finally, we asked if Patricia had any advice for anyone else wondering whether to use FOI for their campaign, or to help bring about a change in the law.

    “Don’t hesitate to use it. This WhatDoTheyKnow website is an absolutely phenomenal tool to have freely available to the public. WhatDoTheyKnow helps the public to use FOI legislation in the way it was intended without fear.”

    We often cover stories of corruption, injustice, finance and other very adult topics — and while those are all crucial matters that deserve transparency, it is also very gratifying to hear about the site being used to benefit thousands of children and their families, in a way that hurts no-one and removes worry and frustration for many. Well done to the Give Them Time campaign.

    Image: Jelleke Vanooteghem

  2. Need something in your neighbourhood? Sometimes all you have to do is ask

    What happened when you contacted your councillor or MP through WriteToThem? If that was the first step towards a change for the better — large or small —  we’d love to hear about it.

    When we asked this question on Twitter, the first person to reply was Tim Morton, who told us how he’d used our services to get a useful addition to his local neighbourhood. The story began on FixMyStreet, but really came to fruition thanks to WriteToThem.

    Tim says that he’s been using FixMyStreet since 2008: “If you look at my reports, the vast majority relate to the street I live in, and my local park” — and indeed, that’s the scene for the success he tweeted to tell us about: the story of the Grit Bin.

    It began with a report, back in 2010:

    Grit bin request on FixMyStreet

    “I pressed send,” says Tim, “and waited for something to happen”.

    But unfortunately, nothing did — had Tim’s message been lost in the internal workings of his council?

    It was radio silence until four weeks later when FixMyStreet’s automated mail arrived, asking whether the report had been seen to. If you click ‘no’, you’re taken to a screen suggesting a few ideas for escalating your issue, one of which is to contact your local councillors through WriteToThem.

    Tim decided that this was a good idea, and posted an update on his FixMyStreet report to say so:

    FixMyStreet update from 2010

    “Again, though, there was a period of silence… and I’d almost forgotten about it,” says Tim.

    But sometimes these things take a bit of time. Because, seven weeks later, and just in time for Christmas:

    Tim’s simple request had brought about a useful and tangible change for his community.

    OK, so, ideally it would have happened quickly and with full communication from the council, after that first FixMyStreet report. But on the other hand, this is a great example of how sometimes you have to persevere, and try another route, before you get success.

    “The grit bin is still there: occasionally I ask for a refill, and when the snow falls I trudge along the road and shovel grit across the junction.”

    So the benefit has lasted — and is allowing Tim to do his bit for his community even now, a decade later.

    A grit bin - image by Tim Morton

    Tim rates FixMyStreet so much that he’s demonstrated it to community groups and on training courses. He explains, “I think the great thing about FixMyStreet is its ease of use, and the very visible audit trail.

    “One thing I always point out is the timestamps on my initial reports. I often make reports in the evening, or at weekends: they’re done in the moment and not by trying to get through to the council on Monday morning or when the office is open. I find if I had to wait, I’d forget about the issue.

    “Leicester Council has been good at responding to my requests, and I always post their replies in the comments on my reports.” (Leicester is not currently a FixMyStreet Pro client, so their responses are not automatically published on the website, but sent to the report-maker by email.)

    Being an expert user, of course Tim knows all about FixMyStreet’s more advanced features.

    “I’ve recommended that community groups use the local alerts function. This means they can see what other people are reporting in their area, which they may be unaware of.

    “If they’re a group that focuses on neighbourhood improvement, it will identify potential issues for them to work on, and in fact, may introduce them to potential new activists in their area. I’ve pointed Ward Councillors to this, as well, as it can be really helpful in their work”.

    Thanks so much to Tim for telling us all about the grit bin and his efforts to help spread the word about FixMyStreet. A grit bin may seem like a small win, but when you consider how many thousands of reports are made up and down the country every week on FixMyStreet, and how many messages are sent to councillors on WriteToThem to ask for a neighbourhood improvement, you can see that the net effect could be massive.

    And on that note, if you have brought change by writing to your MP or councillor, by making a FixMyStreet report or perhaps by using one of our other services, please let us know — we’re all ears.

    We’re using these stories as part of a training module that helps young people understand how democracy functions in the UK, and how to work within it to make positive change. Your stories will help us to show this in action, rather than just theoretically, so you’ll be helping us to help those who need it. Thanks!

  3. 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.

  4. Using FOI to protect social housing and council property

    Freedom of Information was one tool used in a coordinated campaign to prevent a council from selling off a large part of its property portfolio — including many social housing homes.

    Councils, strapped for cash during austerity, have been looking for other ways to raise revenue. As we saw from The Bureau Local’s sold from under you investigation, that has often meant selling off public land and property.

    But that can only be done once — the asset, and the benefits from it, are then gone. And when the properties in question are homes, there’s a significant human cost too.

    The Stop Haringey Development Vehicle campaign (SHDV) successfully prevented a property deal that would have brought about the demolition of some of the borough’s biggest housing estates so that the land could be redeveloped for enormous profits.

    The role WhatDoTheyKnow played was invaluable in terms of us seeking and often finding a wide variety of data to inform our campaigning, publicity and political pressure.

    It was a campaign that gained press attention and community support. It went as far as court, with substantial legal costs covered through crowdfunding.

    Hilary Adams told us how SHDV used our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow, not just to send FOI requests but also to comb through the requests that were already published on the site to see what previously-released information might be useful.

    Haringey’s plan

    Back in 2017 Haringey council planned to set up what is known as a Joint Venture Vehicle — basically, a business arrangement between a number of parties — with Lendlease, an Australian multinational property developer.

    Hilary tells us, “The deal was widely advertised as having the potential future value of £2 billion. Half the property would have been given to Lendlease, everything to be owned 50/50. The company was not expected to pay, but rather would have borrowed money to use to develop the land, then sell many of the new properties.

    “The first part of this plan would have included the transfer of Northumberland Park Housing Estate, one of the largest in Haringey, along with many other smaller estates and individual social housing properties.

    “Those properties would have been demolished and replaced with largely private housing with reduced tenancy protections for any remaining social housing tenants.”

    But the council had not foreseen the degree to which the community would fight for their homes, and for the right to be included in major decisions that affected their borough.

    Community reactions

    Before the HDV I had never submitted an FOI request before — WhatDoTheyKnow made it really easy.

    Hilary says, “This was a broad-based opposition, both from members of political parties and many other local individuals in the community.

    “We feared, with good reason, that much of the social housing would be lost in this process. The sale would have, on day one, included the whole of the Commercial Portfolio of the council which amounted to a value of many millions. It also included the majority of council offices and other properties.

    “The second part of the plan would have included Broadwater Farm estate, another very large social housing estate, with a view to demolition and redevelopment with mostly private housing.”

    As well as the potential loss of countless homes, with no promise of rehousing within the borough, the plan was being implemented with very little scrutiny.

    The councils’ assessment reports were not publicly shared — and the only consultation held was an informal survey at a fun day, asking whether people supported ‘better quality housing’. Of course, most said yes!

    FOI as a campaign tool

    One of Hilary’s contributions to the campaign was in the assessment of information released through existing FOI requests, and in the putting in of new requests to fill the data gaps.

    “I attended a meeting where a local councillor spoke about the plans for the HDV.  She had recently been elected and was horrified by what she had discovered.

    “Once the campaign had started up, it was this same councillor that suggested I should use your site to coordinate the questions we might need to ask. I became the lead on this part of the campaign, although it was not my only area of work.”

    How FOI helped  

    “The role WhatDoTheyKnow played was invaluable in terms of us seeking and often finding a wide variety of data to inform our campaigning, publicity and political pressure.

    An FOI response can help focus on a key set of facts from a sea of too much detail.

    “I took responsibility for collating information that was already on your site and pertinent to us, and also for working out what further questions remained that we might need to ask.

    “We had a team issuing the requests, and I kept track of all the responses. That information was all collated and summarised by me and several reports compiled for use with both our media contacts and for our legal challenge.

    “Without your excellent site this task would have been virtually impossible.  As I am sure you can imagine, even with the site it was a gigantic task and I spent more hours of my life than I would have liked reading some of the most boring and irrelevant responses!”

    At this point, we must nod towards our WhatDoTheyKnow Pro service, which was in development at the time — but which would definitely help any future campaign with the donkey work of a mass FOI project.

    What was uncovered

    Hilary continues: “With diligence some gems of information came to light, some of which was already in the public domain — that often feels like it is hidden in plain sight and so our questions led to documents we otherwise might not have thought to consider.

    “One element which came up repeatedly, and which helped to sway public opinion was the regularity with which meetings were held, yet no records were kept.

    “I eventually collated all of these together, showing a pattern that led us to believe there was a degree of secrecy at play. Public money and resources were being disposed of yet much of the supposedly transparent decision making was anything but.

    “Another influential element revealed via FOI was that the property developers were meeting regularly with not only key council officials, but other significant public bodies. These meetings were officially consultative, yet clearly the minutes showed them making important decisions as to how Tottenham should be redeveloped. No representatives of local residents or small and medium local business had any equivalent access to the public authorities in this way with all the direct and indirect influence implied.

    “And while councillors were verbally assuring the community that social housing was protected, in reality the paperwork showed commitment only to 31% affordable homes — a very different concept to actual social housing at council rents, which were not secured in the plan. In Haringey there were something like 10,000 on the waiting list, and we could find no evidence, despite verbal assurances, as to how anybody would eventually be housed.

    “We also found repeated examples of large amounts of public money being given to developers who would later make significant profits.

    “All of this resonated strongly in the community and was fuel to the fire of the campaign both from a media and public opinion perspective.”

    Publicity for the campaign

    Freedom of Information also came into its own by providing the basis for press coverage.

    “We received significant media interest, and the ongoing information we were getting was useful, as new information would act as a focus for a fresh round of media attention.

    “I put together a compilation of FOI responses in the hope that by saving journalists work, we would encourage attention on the issues that caused us most concern.

    “Each new revelation that we were able to publicise had the effect of building opposition to the scheme and strengthened the campaign against it. We developed a good relationship with a Guardian journalist, Aditya Chakrabortty, who took a personal and long term interest in the issue.

    “In this article, for example, he makes direct reference to something we discovered via FOI: the existence of a shadow board, consisting of council officers and an elected councillor, which was set up prior to the council agreeing formally to the HDV with Lendlease.

    “This is a good example of how facts can be hidden in plain sight. Nobody opposed to the HDV had been aware of this until it was revealed in an FOI response. It had been included in one line of a 650 page council report, but few people read every document.

    “As this article reveals, this was only one of many vast collections of documents relating to the HDV. In that context, well placed questions can shed light on otherwise hidden corners.

    “Naturally we needed to read all the documentation, and there were a few people involved in the campaign who would do so. An FOI response, however, can help focus on a key set of facts from a sea of too much detail.”

    FOI contributing to the court case

    “Just as with the journalists, I compiled a summary of the FOI responses we felt were most useful, and this was used by the legal team in their preparation.

    Without your excellent site this task would have been virtually impossible.

    “We lost the legal case, but the one element found in our favour was that the council had failed in their duty to consult.

    “That information had been confirmed by FOI requests, by virtue of the limited response. They had been unable to provide much detail in relation to consultation, thus proving that nothing meaningful had taken place.

    “However, we were deemed to be out of time and the court case fell. Having said this, we had never expected to win the whole campaign via the courts. Any win would have only meant that they would be required to amend the process — the law would never have stopped the entire plan. We did not doubt they had the legal right to do it: we simply felt that it was not in the best interests of the people of Haringey.

    “Our main aim was to delay the signing of the contact with Lendlease long enough that new councillors would be in place and they would vote against the scheme. Unless we had amassed enough information to convince the court to allow the case to be heard, we would not have gained that delay: while the result was awaited, the council were prevented from signing any contract.”

    Looking back and looking forward

    A new council was voted in with members more sympathetic to the cause; that council halted the HDV and the campaign was eventually won after two long hard years. But is that the end of it?

    Hilary reckons so, for now at least: “The nature and vast size of the proposed HDV scheme was unique, and unlikely to be attempted again in the next decade.

    “Yes, our campaign had a huge impact, but we think the whole scheme was in danger of collapsing anyway because it was such a bad idea. It had few guarantees of success, and there were many ways in which it could have failed without any intervention from ourselves.

    “However, that failure would only have become apparent long after the public land and properties had been privatised, after which we would simply never have got them back.”

    And while the campaign succeeded, we cannot be complacent.

    “The HDV was conceived in the context of current times. Regeneration in Haringey, and indeed the world, continues to be a hot issue — there’s an international movement to privatise public land, housing and resources.

    “But while the underlying issues remain, and regeneration remains a cover for what amounts to social cleansing, we do feel that our campaign contributed to some shift in the discourse around these issues.

    “We won, and that was a significant event that has inspired others to try to defend their areas and raised public awareness of all of the issues encapsulated within.”

    Hilary continues to campaign with FOI.

    “Currently I am involved with the Wards Corner Latin Village campaign and we are using WhatDoTheyKnow to seek information that might help in that struggle.

    “Before the HDV I had never submitted an FOI request before — WhatDoTheyKnow made it really easy.”

    We’re very glad to be of use in these campaigns, and we wish Hilary the best of luck in future endeavours to preserve this pocket of North London.

    Image: Haringey Liberal democrats (CC by-nd/2.0)

  5. FOI reveals that Higher Education Institutes spend more than £330 million on access to research journals

    Stuart Lawson is a librarian, one of the editors at the Journal of Radical Librarianship, and a part of the open access movement which advocates that research outputs should be distributed for free and online, with an open license — for the good of all.

    So it should come as no surprise to learn that some of Stuart’s recent research, informed by Freedom of Information requests to the UK’s Higher Education Institutes, has focused on research journals — and specifically, how much institutes are paying for subscriptions. You can see the requests here, the data released in this spreadsheet, and the resulting report here.

    The study collected details of payments made by HEIs for access to academic journals from 2017-2019,  focusing on ten publishers. The research team discovered that the total expenditure was more than £330 million.

    We spoke to Stuart and asked for some background to this FOI-based investigation, beginning with an explanation of the original motivation behind it:

    “Open access publishing means that research is available to everyone, but there are debates around how that model can be paid for. And since there is currently a mixed system where some publications are open access and some require subscriptions to access, libraries are continuing to pay a lot of money for subscriptions while also trying to find ways to fund open access.

    “I am a librarian who wants all research to be published open access rather than behind a paywall, so I felt that it was important to know the financial costs of the current system.

    “Previously, the amounts were unknown. It’s impossible to have conversations about the appropriate cost of scholarly publishing if we don’t know what those costs are in the first place!”

    The need for FOI

    Freedom of Information is, of course, a practical way to obtain data from public authorities, and to build up a nationwide picture. But in this case, it was vital.

    “Using the legal tool of FOI was the only way to get this data, as institutions were not voluntarily releasing it.

    “One publisher, Elsevier, even had a clause in the contracts signed by libraries that forbade them from telling anyone how much they were spending, unless they were required to via an FOI request.

    “These ‘non-disclosure’ clauses are common worldwide in publisher contracts, but thankfully not widely used in the UK (except by Elsevier) because Jisc — the higher education body that negotiates most deals — have worked to remove them”.

    Despite the reluctance that one might assume that this signified, Stuart says getting the required information was pretty straightforward once they’d submitted the FOI requests. In fact, the hardest part was the admin:

    “A majority of HEIs provided the data promptly, although some refused in the first instance which meant I need to push back and sometimes requested an internal review of the handling of the request.

    “Eventually most institutions provided the data, but the hold-outs caused a lot more work for me”.

    Making requests in public

    Why was WhatDoTheyKnow particularly suitable for this project?

    “It was the best way that I knew of to make bulk requests to organisations. But more importantly for me, I wanted to make sure there was a complete public record of all responses so that when I compiled the data, others could verify it”.

    That’s one of the reasons that WhatDoTheyKnow is set up to publish FOI requests and responses online, so we were glad to hear this.

    And what is Stuart’s desired outcome from this study?

    “For people to realise the high cost of subscription charges, and for libraries to question how much they are spending. And perhaps even cancel some of the deals and spend their money on enabling open access instead.”

    It’s possible that this piece of research will be enough of an eye-opener to start making a change in this area. But Stuart’s realistic:

    “I hope I don’t need to send these requests again in future years, but the situation is still moving quite slowly, so it might be necessary to use WhatDoTheyKnow once again!”

    Image: Bruno Mira

  6. Friends of the Earth’s Climate tool and MapIt

    What is your local authority doing about the climate emergency?

    Of course, we all want to see action, and fast. Several authorities across the UK have declared a climate emergency, while others are bringing climate-friendly propositions to the table. But how do you know the actual concrete outcomes of these?

    Fortunately, Friends of the Earth have put together a tool which helps you see just that — and we’re glad to say it makes use of our MapIt API.

    We spoke to Joachim Farncombe, FoE’s Digital Delivery manager, to find out more about what they built, how it works, and how exactly MapIt fits in.

    How climate-friendly is your area?

    “The Climate Tool invites people to tap in their postcode, and then discover how their local authority is performing on a number of measures, including renewable energy, transport, housing, waste and tree cover.”

    Joachim explains that in fact, they’ve produced two tools: “There’s one highly detailed version which we think our existing supporters will use, and another which provides a summary of the data for those newer to Friends of the Earth and the whole area of councils’ climate responsibility. 

    “Both tools reveal data from local authority areas, around key issues that are impacting our climate. The ultimate aim was to create an engagement opportunity that would drive new and existing supporters to take climate action locally.

    “The whole project is designed to highlight that there are different ways of addressing the climate emergency. One of the key drivers of change is for communities to put pressure on their local authorities to make urgent changes to reduce emissions”.

    Taking action

    So — once you’re all clued up on how your local area is doing, what then?

    “Once you’ve absorbed the data, there’s the option to click on ‘What can I do to help?’.

    “We’re asking people to add their name to support a climate action plan in their area. We’ll also be introducing those who sign up to our climate action groups, a network of community groups working to make our communities more climate friendly.”

    Where does MapIt fit in?

    The MapIt API allows developers to include a postcode input box anywhere on a web page. When a user enters their postcode, MapIt checks which administrative boundaries it sits within. The developer can choose what type of area they need — for example, if the site wants to encourage people to write to their MP, MapIt will return the constituency; or, in this case, as users will be contacting their local authorities, it returns the relevant council.

    Joachim says that FoE already knew of MapIt as they’d used it in their campaign for more trees. “It was very straightforward. The JSON response was easy to parse and the API speed was impressive.”

    Once the user has been matched to the right council, the climate tool dips into its store of data to show them the current climate performance in their area, across key topics.

    “We developed an internal API called FactStore which indexes whatever sets of data you need. In this case, this was data collated from approximately fifty different external datasets. This data was all pulled from open data sources, mostly released by the authorities themselves.”

    The tool was well received, and was shared across social media by supporters and new users alike. “Actually”, says Joachim, “it was a bit more popular than we’d anticipated, and we hit our initial quota on MapIt very early after launch, but there was a quick fix (we just upgraded our quota!)”.

    In short? “MapIt has been invaluable. Without it, we’d be unable to connect the users location with the datasets we’d collated”.

    We’re looking forward to working with Friends of the Earth more in the coming months — watch this space.

    Image: Alicja-ab

  7. FOI and the Irish border issue

    At the time of writing, a No Deal Brexit seems ever more likely. What exactly will that mean for the UK?

    Attempts to answer this question have filled many column inches, hours of broadcast and endless tweets. There is certainly no lack of opinions.

    But opinions are best based on facts, and it was in this spirit that WhatDoTheyKnow user Jon Rush set out to request vital information about the key Brexit sticking point, and the main reason that a deal is so hard to agree — the Irish border.

    Brexit and the border

    As Jon explains, “Brexit creates serious problems for the current arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland under the Good Friday Agreement  because they depend heavily on both the UK and RoI being in the EU”.

    He wanted to gain access to the results of a mapping exercise, referred to in a joint report from the EU and UK negotiators but not available to the public at that time, which assessed the level to which co-operation between the North and the South depends on the EU frameworks currently in place.

    Crucial information, you might think, for the general public who will be so affected at every level by whatever type of Brexit we enter into. Jon certainly thought so — but getting hold of it would set him on a long journey.

    A hard-won result

    Jon’s initial request, to the department for Exiting the EU (DEXEU) was in December 2017. You can follow its long and complicated journey on that page, thanks to Jon’s detailed annotations.

    FOI is one of the few tools that individuals can use to hold government to account and it’s important to use it — otherwise government will never take transparency seriously.

    Simultaneously he was requesting the same information via our partner AccessInfo’s site, AskTheEU.com, which covers EU authorities — and meanwhile, MPs in the UK’s Exiting the EU Select Committee requested the same information on numerous occasions throughout 2018, but were repeatedly rebuffed by government.

    Pursuing his right to information would take Jon via the ICO, the European Ombudsman and to the brink of a tribunal, but in the end, the report was indeed released into the public domain.

    What was revealed

    What did it tell us?

    “It contains a description of each area relevant to North-South cooperation under the Good Friday Agreement together with an assessment of how far it is underpinned by EU legal and policy frameworks.

    “The focus in the media has tended to be on trade/customs arrangements, but if you go through the mapping exercise, you find that many other areas of cooperation are underpinned by the EU membership, including transport links, water, waste management, energy, Irish language broadcasting, mobile roaming, invasive species, disease control and cross-border police cooperation.

    “Overall, 96 out of 142 different areas covered by the mapping exercise were found to be supported by EU legal or policy frameworks (with well over a third being “directly underpinned or linked”, ie EU membership is particularly significant).

    “This shows that any workable solution is likely to involve the UK committing to quite a close relationship with the EU, at least in the areas identified as crucial to North-South cooperation”.

    Approaching the UK border on Newtown Road for J0719 The houses beyond the sheugh which here marks the Border are in Co Armagh. The gate in the foreground are those of disused ROI Border facilities. The road sign is a reminder of the Republic's 80kmph speed limit on back roads.

    Disused ROI border facilities in Co Armagh. Image by Eric Jones (CC by-sa/2.0)

    A lack of transparency

    The release of this information was a positive result — but Jon believes that the government has been far from open during the whole Brexit process.

    “To be properly informed about Brexit, we need access to information which is often available only from government. It would be very difficult for an organisation outside government to produce something like the mapping exercise because it requires input from numerous experts across different areas and in some cases, access to information that only government is likely to have.

    “Government is therefore uniquely well placed to provide this information – but if government refuses to share it, it’s impossible to get the full picture.

    “In my view, the government’s approach to its own documents concerning Brexit has been to release as little as humanly possible, arguing that disclosure would undermine its negotiating position with the EU.

    “I accept that occasionally, information may need to be withheld for this reason. But it is equally if not more important that people can understand what Brexit will mean for them —  and I don’t think the government has paid anywhere near enough attention to that issue”.

    Evading scrutiny

    This was not Jon’s first experience using FOI: in fact, he had recently exercised his rights to information on another Brexit matter.

    I asked DEXEU for details of the scope and timetable of their consultation on leaving the EU. This was after David Davis (who was then Secretary of State for Exiting the EU) had told Parliament in September 2016 that the government would be consulting widely on the options for leaving the EU.

    WhatDoTheyKnow.com has made the process quite easy to initiate and it also means that others who might be interested in the same information can find your request.

    “By late October, nothing had been published, so I made an FOI request through WhatDoTheyKnow.

    “Initially, DEXEU told me it had this information but refused my request, saying that it planned to publish the information at a later date. I didn’t see why the information couldn’t be published sooner and complained to the ICO.

    “Their investigation showed that DEXEU did not have a formal plan or any formal process for the consultation — which explained their somewhat evasive response.

    “DEXEU should probably have told me that it didn’t hold the information I had requested – but to do so would have involved effectively admitting that it didn’t have a plan or any formal process for consultation. You can make up your own mind by reading what the ICO had to say here”.

    Pursuing a refused response

    But back to the Irish border request. When Jon didn’t receive a response from DEXEU, and after requesting a similarly fruitless internal review, he took the next step and referred the matter to the ICO. They ruled against disclosure in a decision that Jon believes was ill-founded:

    “The ICO decision was based on section 35 of the FOI Act, which relates to information produced for the purposes of policy formulation.

    To be properly informed about Brexit, we need access to information which is often available only from government.

    “It is certainly true that the mapping exercise was produced to inform the government’s thinking about Brexit and Northern Ireland. However, it was a summary of the current arrangements, not a discussion of what the future policy options should be; as such, it was essentially background information, which is usually regarded as less sensitive. Section 35(4) makes it clear that there is a particular public interest in the disclosure of background of information – and case law makes it clear that such disclosure can take place before the final policy has been formulated, as I was requesting here.

    “The ICO also argued that disclosure of the mapping exercise would have a “negative effect on discussions” with the EU and “create a distraction to discussions” — but its decision did not explain how this would occur, especially given that the mapping exercise had been shared with the EU.

    “When I put these points to the ICO as part of my appeal to the tribunal, it accepted that the mapping exercise was background information but argued that it should be treated in the same way as discussion of policy options. It was unable or unwilling to provide any further explanation of the supposed negative effects of disclosure and suggested that this was a matter for DEXEU to explain. I was (and remain) very concerned by this because the ICO is supposed to be an independent regulator; it should not simply be taking what government says at face value but should be questioning it and satisfying itself that what government says is actually correct”.

    And so Jon referred the matter to tribunal.

    But in June of this year, two of the key documents he was requesting were finally  released by the government, and he decided to drop his appeal to tribunal, for reasons which you can read in his annotation of the time.

    Motivation

    While many WhatDoTheyKnow users are determined and driven, it’s also true that others would be easily defeated by an initial refusal, not to mention the further rulings. So what gave Jon the will and tenacity to carry on?

    I would encourage people to use FOI … if you are prepared to persevere and be patient, you can get what you want.

    “I knew that appealing to the tribunal would involve quite a lot of time and effort on my part, but I wasn’t prepared to just let this go for two reasons. Firstly, FOI depends on having an effective regulator which is prepared to question government robustly — and if people like me just shrug our shoulders when that doesn’t seem to have happened, then nothing will ever improve.

    “Secondly, Brexit is going to take many years to sort out and there will be many more occasions where people want to use FOI to get information out of government; unless challenged, government will just continue to refuse to disclose information whenever it suits it to do so.

    “Appealing to the tribunal was a new experience for me. I am a lawyer by profession, which probably helped, but I am not an expert in FOI, nor am I a litigator — and I did feel at times that my lack of familiarity with those areas was a handicap. So I have a lot of respect for people who are not lawyers and take cases to the tribunal on their own.

    “I would encourage people to use FOI and I think that what happened with this request shows that, if you are prepared to persevere and be patient, you can get what you want — even in a situation like this where MPs had asked repeatedly for exactly the same information and hadn’t received it.

    “FOI is one of the few tools that individuals can use to hold government to account and it’s important to use it — otherwise government will never take transparency seriously. WhatDoTheyKnow.com has made the process quite easy to initiate and it also means that others who might be interested in the same information can find your request.”

    Jon is also planning to submit a complaint to the ICO about its handling of this case, including the time taken to deal with it:

    “Although it was expedited, it still took over six months, whereas my complaint to the European Ombudsman (which concerned essentially the same material) was dealt with in about half that time.”

    He intends to post a link to the complaint in a further annotation on the FOI request page on WhatDoTheyKnow – so watch this space!

    Many thanks to Jon for taking the time to talk to us about his long and involved pursuit of information, which despite the delays will still help to inform the UK public at this critical time in our country’s history.


    Top image: the Irish border by Andrein (CC by-sa/3.0)

  8. After Exploitation: using FOI to understand what happens to victims of modern slavery

    In 2016, Theresa May described modern slavery as “the great human rights issue of our time”. “These crimes must be stopped,” she said, “and the victims of modern slavery must go free”.

    But words alone do not ensure results, it seems. The data mapping project After Exploitation has discovered that a sizable number of vulnerable victims of human trafficking and modern slavery are — far from ‘going free’ — actually being held in UK detention centres with a view to deportation.

    Our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow played a vital part in the project’s research, both in helping identify what data was available, and in bringing about its release.

    In 2016 and in a follow-up report in 2018, Sir Stephen Shaw reviewed this country’s immigration detention practices, with a focus on the welfare of vulnerable detainees.

    One result of his many recommendations was the employment of ‘Detention Gatekeepers’ — independent overseers who check the status of detainees, and that they are legitimately held. If they are found to be in this country as a result of human trafficking or modern slavery, they should be offered help via the National Referral Mechanism.

    We spoke to Maya Esslemont, founder of After Exploitation, to learn how the use of WhatDoTheyKnow has helped uncover the true numbers of those who have been let down by this system, information which the government had previously denied that they held.

    She told us:

    “Through FOI requests, we uncovered the number of potential and recognised victims of human trafficking who have been deported since 2016 or detained in 2018.

    “The figures revealed that 507 potential victims and 29 recognised victims of trafficking were held in detention, despite a low rate of eventual deportation.

    “This completely needless and unjustifiable use of detention on vulnerable people, for whom there was never any realistic chance of removal, demonstrated huge failures in Detention Gatekeeping, the process meant to prevent vulnerable people from being detained.”

    Maya explained that, prior to these findings, a gap in the publicly-available data impeded any understanding of the number of vulnerable detainees:

    “Although the Government releases quarterly statistics outlining the number of ‘potential’ victims of trafficking, very little is known about the number of recognised victims who are later deported, detained, or left at risk of re-trafficking due to a lack of safehousing. Our project hoped to demonstrate the scale of these issues”.

    FOI seemed like the obvious route to uncovering these figures, says Maya, in part because it was clear where the information must be held, if it existed:

    “The Home Office oversees both immigration enforcement and victim support and recognition. This is a clear conflict of interest, but it did mean that we knew all the outcome information must be held in the same place.”

    The group found that by checking the archive of previous FOI requests published on WhatDoTheyKnow, they could discern exactly what data existed, and more importantly, could cite prior responses as proof of its existence.

    As suspected, but denied until now, the Home Office holds highly specific, readily available information on immigration, detention and deportation outcomes of trafficking victims.

    “We knew from Parliamentary correspondence that some trafficking victims’ asylum outcome data was held as far back as 2015, but nobody had any idea that such readily available data on the actual detention existed.

    “When we trawled through Home Office FOI requests submitted by others on WhatDoTheyKnow, it was clear that information on detainees’ vulnerability was held — and it was after we referenced these previous request outcomes, dated since 2016, that the Home Office started providing data on trafficking specifically.”

    We were most interested to hear this, as it further justifies one of WhatDoTheyKnow’s key features – that all requests and responses are published online. We talk a lot about how this can make the information accessible to wider numbers of people, but here is an example of that archive going on to inform a further set of requests, bringing about important results.

    And visibility wasn’t just useful in helping the campaign discover the existence of the vital data, but also, Maya believes, provided an extra incentive for the Home Office to release the information in accordance with the FOI Act:

    “I submitted a fair few FOI requests privately, but most received a rejection. However, since moving the same requests to a public platform, we’ve found that a majority have been fulfilled.

    “Many charities and journalists may be tempted to submit FOI requests privately so that the responses can be ‘saved’ for exclusive research or stories, but this exercise seemed to prove that it can be more effective to ask for information as publicly as possible.”

    (We should mention that our WhatDoTheyKnow Pro service does allow for the private submission of requests which are then published at a later date — although there’s no requirement to submit privately. Pro users can enjoy the best of both worlds, using the organisational features and the batch request functionality, and making requests in private or in public according to which strategy they find most effective.)

    Having uncovered this crucial data, After Exploitation has worked with other organisations to get their findings more widely known:

    “The charity Women for Refugee Women managed to secure a debate in Westminster Hall on the detention of trafficking victims. As part of this debate, MPs discussed research by their organisation and by After Exploitation.

    “Political interest in this issue should be commended, but the Immigration Ministers’ response was very concerning. Caroline Nokes MP claimed that the use of detention on 507 potential trafficking victims was justified, as many were recognised during the time they were in detention.

    “However, we believe the fact that hundreds of vulnerable people were deemed suitable for detention in the first place is deeply worrying.”

    The research gained wider attention, too:

    MPs and journalists at the Guardian, Sky News, Independent Online and Thompson Reuters picked up our research paper Supported or Deported?.

    “In response to the findings, 23 NGOs signed our open letter asking for greater data transparency on human trafficking support outcomes, and for an end to Home Office involvement in vulnerability screening and trafficking decision-making. A week later, Diane Abbott MP tabled an urgent question in Parliament asking the government about the detention of exploited people.

    “However, the Government response showed how much work is left to do. The Immigration Minister dismissed the Government’s own data as not robust enough to provoke change, whilst also using this same data to clear its reputation on the length of detention.

    “This response shows how much harder we have to work before the Government will commit to data transparency, and the way victims are treated.”

    We asked Maya what she hoped others would take from the experience of After Exploitation.

    “I hope journalists, activists and academics will submit their own FOI requests to contribute to public understanding of human trafficking, modern slavery, and other forms of exploitation such as forced marriage.

    “When it comes to human trafficking victim support, there are still so many gaps in our understanding — such as health, wellbeing and legal outcomes. We’re already taking another request to the Information Commissioner’s Office after a rejection on cost grounds, but we hope the ongoing struggle to secure information on trafficking will encourage others to do the same.”

    We congratulate the project on what they’ve achieved to date and hope it will act as inspiration to others who seek to uncover injustice or malpractice within our systems.

    You can read more about After Exploitation’s work here, and find their WhatDoTheyKnow FOI requests here.

    Image: CC by-sa/4.0 via Wikipedia

  9. Case study: Sold From Under You by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism

    Using WhatdoTheyKnow Pro, this project pieced together a nationwide dataset, and generated important stories at both national and local levels.

    Sold from Under You, a project from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, revealed how much publicly-owned property has been sold off across England, as a response to austerity measures. In all, TBIJ discovered that over 12,000 buildings and pieces of land have been disposed of, bringing councils revenue of £9.1 billion — some of which has been spent on staff redundancies.

    In collaboration with HuffPost, the findings were presented in the form of an interactive map which allows users to explore sales in their own area.

    The investigation required a significant amount of data collection via FOI requests to 353 councils, work which was aided by WhatDoTheyKnow Pro. More than 150 people across the UK, including local journalists, took part in the collaborative investigation. As well as HuffPost’s coverage, stories were run in regional news outlets across the country. The project has now been shortlisted for the Data Journalism awards.

    We spoke to Gareth Davies from TBIJ to understand how the organisation approached this ambitious project, and what part WhatDoTheyKnow Pro played in it. Here’s what he told us:


    “The Bureau has been investigating the local government funding crisis in the UK for the last 18 months. The initial part of this particular investigation focused on the overall financial health of local authorities and used data to determine which were under the most pressure. We then wanted to look at the impact of the funding crisis so teamed up with Hazel Sheffield and her Far Nearer project to look at the public spaces that were being lost as a result.

    “At the start of the investigation we undertook a research period to determine what local authorities are required to publish about the buildings and land they own, and how many of them were adhering to those rules.

    “We discovered that while councils have to publish annual lists of the assets they own, this does not include vital information such as who assets were bought from or sold to and the prices paid.

    “Also, two thirds of councils update the same spreadsheet each year, meaning change over time is lost. As a result it became apparent that FOI would be required to obtain the information we were interested in. FOI is a tool we have used for a number of stories, particularly those produced by our Bureau Local team.

    “The information we wanted could be divided into two groups: what assets councils were buying and selling, and what they were doing with the money raised when an asset is sold. The research period showed we would need FOI to obtain this data.”

    More than 700 FOI requests

    “To reduce the risk of requests being refused for exceeding the cost/time limit, we needed to submit two separate requests to each of the 353 local authorities in England.

    “Previously I had submitted and managed bulk FOI requests via email. However, staying on top of more than 700 requests would have proven very challenging. I was aware of the WhatDoTheyKnow Pro platform but hadn’t used it before, so thought this would be the ideal opportunity to test it out.

    I don’t think I would have achieved that without WhatDoTheyKnow Pro

    “It was useful to have up-to-date contact details for each authority and to be able to send the FOI requests in one go. But probably the most useful feature was the way in which WhatDoTheyKnow Pro tracks the status of each request and shows you when the public body in question has exceeded the statutory time limit. This made it a lot easier to stay on top of which councils needed to be chased and when I needed to do it.

    “Managing so many FOI requests was still challenging and very time consuming but it would have been much harder by email. The first batch of requests had a success rate of more than 95% and the other (which was more detailed)  was around 85%.

    “I don’t think I would have achieved that without WhatDoTheyKnow Pro and, as a result, the investigation and interactive map we created would not have been as comprehensive.”

    Refining the requests

    While councils have to publish annual lists of the assets they own, this does not include vital information such as who assets were bought from or sold to and the prices paid

    “I sent requests to one of each type of local authority (London borough, metropolitan borough, unitary, county and district) to test what, if any, information councils would provide. The fact that all of those requests were successful meant I had confidence when submitting the batch requests.

    “It also allowed me to include additional information in the bulk requests, because some of the test councils erroneously withheld, under Section 40, the identities of companies. As a result I added a note to the request highlighting that this would not be a correct application of that exemption.

    As each response came in I recorded them in two separate spreadsheets — one showing what assets had been bought/sold and another containing information about how the money raised from asset sales had been used. Gradually we built a comprehensive picture of what was happening with public spaces, and that was crucial for our story.”

    Bringing about change

    There have been tangible results from this investigation.

    The government launched an investigation into the sale of assets by Peterborough Council as a result of this particular story, focusing on that area.

    “We submitted our findings to an inquiry currently being held by the Communities and Local Government select committee and were mentioned by name during the first day of oral hearings.

    “And last month the Public Accounts Committee announced it would hold a similar inquiry into the sale of public land. Several councils halted their property investment policies after our coverage revealed how much they had borrowed to fund the purchases.”

    Thank you very much to Gareth Davies for talking to us about the Sold From Under You project.

    Find out more about WhatDoTheyKnow Pro.

    Image: Daniel von Appen

  10. Using WhatDoTheyKnow to uncover how schoolchildren’s data was used to support the Hostile Environment

    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.”

    And so Jen went on a crash course to learn about FOI, reading books by Heather Brookes and Matthew Burgess, and WhatDoTheyKnow’s own guidance pages.

    “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.

    “The Bill includes a blanket sweeping away of privacy rights, highlighted by the 3 Million campaign, again thanks to FOI: Every EU citizen applying for Settled Status to accept its Privacy Policy that allows it to share all data with “public and private sector organisations in the UK and overseas.”

    “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.”