Friday, 17 July 2015

The Freedom of Information Act and East Devon

During Wednesday's District Council cabinet meeting, it was announced that the selling of Knowle was well under way:
Futures Forum: Knowle relocation project: contracts exchanged for sale with preferred bidder Pegasus

However, as current cases with the Information Commissioner and Information Tribunal indicate, there are serious misgivings about the way in which the District Council has handled information around the Knowle relocation project:
EDDC report brushes aside criticism from high-level authorities, about the District Council’s failure to be transparent. | Save Our Sidmouth

Interestingly, the Chief Executive stated at the Cabinet meeting that the 'practice of the Freedom of Information Act has evolved' since 2000, from the standard question of 'Do you have this information, if so, can you provide it' - which could be rejected if it were found to be about 'internal or confidential business'. Now the questions are 'much more involved' and the parties are now 'entering into a dialogue' over whether there is agreement or not.

The CEO went on to say that perhaps the District Council 'haven't moved with the times on this', if indeed the Information Commissioner expects not 'just the information' to be supplied, but that there should be 'a dialogue on the implications of the information'.

This is within the context of central government 'reviewing' the current information regime:
Ministers plot ways to stifle Freedom of Information Act | Daily Mail Online

The news has reached the West Country:
Review of Freedom of Information Act to make it harder for public to find out about Whitehall's work | Western Morning News
Government plans to water down Freedom of Information Act to homeopathic levels | East Devon Watch

The Information Commissioner is not happy with this:

Data protection regulator launches staunch defence of Freedom of Information Act

The staunch defence comes as Justice Secretary Michael Gove announces a crackdown on freedom of information laws

JAMIE MERRILL Thursday 02 July 2015

The regulator in charge of data protection and consumer protection has given a staunch defence of Britain’s embattled transparency laws, only days after Justice Secretary Michael Gove confirmed he was considering a crackdown on freedom of information laws.

The Information Commissioner Christopher Graham said it was striking how “hard fought” for decisions had resulted in such “routine” publication of vital information, in comments that will be seized upon by transparency campaigners.

Last week Mr Gove confirmed he was considering making it more difficult to procure information under the Freedom of Information Act, including by allowing officials to count “thinking time” when calculating how much it costs to collate and retrieve information.

However, Mr Graham said that information on the safety standards of different cars, hygiene standards in pubs and restaurants and surgical performance levels, were among the data that is “now expected and unexceptionable” thanks to the 2005 Freedom of Information Act.

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who introduced the act, famously described himself as an “idiot” for introducing the law, but Mr Graham said the ICO’s role in enforcing the act has “led to information being released that time and time again has delivered real benefits to the UK”.”

Mr Graham was speaking at the launch of the Information Commissioner’s Office annual report

Data protection regulator launches staunch defence of Freedom of Information Act - UK Politics - UK - The Independent

The head of the Campaign for FOI is also worried, as reported in today's Telegragh:

Politicians embarrassed by Freedom of Information laws given chance to tighten rules

Maurice Frankel, founder of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, said: 'It is obviously an attempt to stop the pubic having insight into any internal discussions taking place in Government'

By Christopher Hope, Chief Political Correspondent 17 Jul 2015

Two former politicians who have been embarrassed by Freedom of Information laws are part of a new Whitehall panel appointed by the Government to review its powers.

Jack Straw, the former Labour home secretary and former Tory leader Lord Howard of Lymphne, are on the five-strong group conducting a review after 10 years of the FOI Act. Mr Straw as Home Secretary blocked the release of Cabinet minutes relating to Scottish devolution and the Iraq War, while Lord Howard - who as an MP was Michael Howard - was criticised in the MPs’ expenses scandal for his large gardening bills, which were disclosed about after a FOI request.

The move comes after Justice Secretary Michael Gove told MPs last month that there was a need to "revisit" the act to ensure officials were able to speak candidly to ministers.

Freedom of Information campaigners said the review was “bad news” not least because MPs on the Justice committee carried out an exhaustive inquiry two years ago.

Maurice Frankel, founder of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, said: “It is obviously an attempt to stop the pubic having insight into any internal discussions taking place in Government.”

On the make-up of the panel, Mr Frankel added: “There is nobody there on the commission whose previous record is of having used the act and having benefitted from the open-ness it provides. That perspective is clearly not represented on the Commission itself.”

The commission’s chairman is Lord Burns, a former permanent secretary, while other members include Lord Carlile of Berriew, the Government’s former adviser on terrorism legislation and Dame Patricia Hodgson. The group, who were selected by Cabinet Office minister Matt Hancock, will be unpaid but will be allowed to claim expenses for their work.

The review will examine “whether there is an appropriate public interest balance between transparency, accountability and the need for sensitive information to have robust protection”. It will also look at “whether the operation of the Act adequately recognises the need for a ‘safe space’ for policy development and implementation and frank advice”.

The review will also look at “the balance between the need to maintain public access to information, and the burden of the Act on public authorities, and whether change is needed to moderate that while maintaining public access to information”.

The Cabinet Office – which is taking over control of FOI policy from the Ministry of Justice - added that the Government wanted to review the work of the Act over a decade after it was introduced.

Officials wanted “to be as open as possible on the substance, consistent with ensuring that a private space is protected for frank advice. To that end as a government we must maintain the best environment for policy-makers to think freely and offer frank advice to decision-makers. The most effective system is when policy makers can freely give advice, whilst citizens can shine a light into government.”

The Freedom of Information Act 2000 has been responsible for the exposure of some of the biggest scandals in local and national Government over the past decade.

These include the MPs’ expenses scandal, exposed by The Daily Telegraph after a FOI request for the publication MPs’ allowances receipts was granted. Others include unanswered phone calls to 101, the non-emergency police number, and delays that are experienced seriously ill at hospitals’ accident and emergency departments.

Thousands of requests are now made every year to local and national Government since the Act was brought in by Tony Blair in 2005, when he was Prime Minister. Mr Blair described his decision to bring in the legislation as his biggest regret. Describing himself as “an irresponsible nincompoop," in his autobiography "A Journey" last year, he said: “There is really no description of stupidity, no matter how vivid, that is adequate. I quake at the imbecility of it.”

A Cabinet Office source said: "It is totally cross party, independent and the panel will take evidence from a wide range of people."

A spokesman added: "We fully support FOI but after more than a decade in operation we think it’s time that the process was reviewed, to make sure it’s working effectively for both hardworking taxpayers and citizens. We are therefore appointing an independent, cross party panel to look at this issue and assess how the practical processes of FOI can be improved."

Politicians embarrassed by Freedom of Information laws given chance to tighten rules - Telegraph

Here is the view of the Campaign for FOI:

Stop FOI restrictions

The Government is likely to be considering three sets of new restrictions to the FOI Act. These are likely to involve:

(1) preventing the disclosure of government policy discussions
(2) strengthening the ministerial veto
(3) making it easier for authorities to refuse FOI requests on cost grounds

The Justice Secretary, Michael Gove, referred to the first of these proposals in the House of Commons in June 2015. The Prime Minister referred to the second in March 2015 after the Supreme Court had ruled that the use of the veto to block the release of Prince Charles’ correspondence with ministers had been unlawful.

Current ministers have not directly suggested that they are considering the third option. However, the coalition government made clear that it was considering this and Tony Blair’s governmentpublished draft regulations to this effect. So it’s likely that similar proposals will also be brought forward

Campaign for Freedom of Information » Stop FOI restrictions

Indeed, most of the discussion at Wednesday's District Council cabinet meeting was about the 'cost' of handling FOI requests - rather than the District Council being more 'transparent':
Review of recent request for information decisions - EDDC

See also:
Freedom of Information and Data Protection - East Devon

Transparency vs. Secrecy | East Devon Alliance

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