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  1. Freedom of Information (FOI): Useful tool that’s failed to live up to our hopes In the decade since the Freedom of Information Act was passed, the BBC is just one media organisation that has used FOI to unearth hundreds of stories. In this edited excerpt from a new book, FOI Ten Years on: Freedom Fighting or Lazy Journalism?, BBC specialist Martin Rosenbaum looks back on the scoops, the hurdles and hard lessons learned: Stories obtained by the BBC using FOI since 2005 have covered a wide range of topics showing how far the law reaches into the operations of the public sector. In the health area this has included revelations about delays in ambulance response and handover times and staff shortages in A&E. Police-related stories have included the ageing of police forces and the extent to which forces boost their detection rates by getting offenders to confess to other crimes. Military stories have included drug taking by soldiers and misconduct on submarines. In transport, which makes of cars are most likely to fail MOT tests. In education, how many councils wouldn’t meet the government’s plans on infant school meals. Then there’s the Home Office failing to collect fines imposed on companies employing illegal workers, and how the Foreign Office weakened its safety advice on travel in Thailand partly for commercial reasons. That’s only a very small selection, but it’s enough to show that FOI has been a very effective device for the BBC on the right topics. (Other FOI-based stories have been collated on the BBC News website.) These stories are often in some sense numerical in nature, possibly identifying the extent of an issue, exploring changes over time, comparing different localities, or collating local data to form a national picture. For the BBC, this can work particularly well. Recent examples are temporary closures of maternity units and rising numbers of parental fines for children’s poor school attendance. Rarer (although still significant) are those stories which are based on quotes or extracts from documents, such as disclosures of internal discussion, records of meetings, exchanges of emails. Before FOI came into force, this was the kind of revelation that I think was widely anticipated - certainly hoped for by many journalists and feared by many officials (as indeed it still is, from my discussions with them). The reality has failed to live up to those hopes and fears. Establishing the pattern In the first couple of years of FOI, it was unclear what kind of information was likely to be released. I certainly made requests then of a kind that I would avoid now as they would be pointless. This uncertainty about how FOI should work was also reflected in the behaviour of public authorities that varied greatly in how they interpreted the new legislation. Some were recalcitrant in adapting to the Act, whereas others I found surprisingly open. I was surprised to obtain extracts from the Special Branch personal protection file of the former prime minister James Callaghan. These papers (from the Metropolitan Police) showed that Lord Callaghan felt his level of protection after leaving office was inadequate, as well as providing an amusing account of the ‘embarrassing situation’ when a Jehovah's Witness proselytising door-to-door managed to evade the security precautions at his home. This kind of access via FOI to old Special Branch documents is now much harder. The Met adopted a new, much more restrictive policy of arguing that SB work was so closely intertwined with the security agencies that SB records should share those agencies’ absolute exemption from FOI. This stance was upheld in a decision by the information commissioner in 2011. In contrast, other public bodies have moved in the other direction, from obstructiveness to more openness. One example is the data held by the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency (VOSA), which administered the MOT system, on MOT pass/fail rates for different car makes and models. In 2008 the BBC made an FOI request for these figures. But VOSA told us that it would be against the public interest to release the details of pass/fail rates by make, as it would damage the commercial interests of certain manufacturers. This position struck me as perverse and obstructive. VOSA maintained this case when we complained to the information commissioner. But its argument was dismissed by the commissioner, who ruled that VOSA should supply the information. We published comparative data for popular models. It took 18 months to extract this information from the agency, but after that VOSA (now merged into the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency) released the same data voluntarily and regularly. Efficiency and delays The FOI performance of public bodies depends not only on their attitudes but their organisational competence. This is very important in practice, to journalists. The information sought is often time sensitive. And if you’re not going to get what you want it’s good to know soon. The main practical problem faced by journalists has been delay. A huge backlog of cases built up in the Information Commissioner’s Office, which meant that it was soon taking over a year for many complaints to be decided, especially for the trickier issues that media requests often involved. In the worst example I faced, the ICO took four years and three months to consider the case, before then ruling in my favour. As the Cabinet Office then appealed fruitlessly to the Information Tribunal, it took altogether more than five and-a-half years for me to receive the information I asked for - the minutes of the 1986 Cabinet meeting at which Michael Heseltine had dramatically resigned as defence secretary over the Westland affair. However, matters improved significantly after Christopher Graham became the commissioner in 2009 and focused effectively on tackling the backlog. Nevertheless there is still a lot of delay in the system. Some key lessons learned 1. FOI is about accessing material that is actually held by a public authority (and not information that you think they should collate but they don’t, or opinions that haven’t been written down, or possible responses to hypothetical situations). A copy of a blank form can be a useful guide to the categories of data an authority collects for a particular purpose 2. Don’t rush into making FOI requests. Check what information is already published. And if the material you want isn’t already out there, a call to the press office might get it more quickly than a formal FOI request 3. Be specific. It’s crucial to think carefully and rigorously about the phrasing of a request to ensure it covers what is wanted, exactly and unambiguously. Try to use the jargon or phraseology that the authority itself employs to refer to the information concerned 4. Given the delays that can be involved, bear in mind that FOI is only of benefit for material that would still be of practical use in a few weeks or even months 5. Before sending a ‘round robin’ request to a large number of authorities, it is often worth sending a ‘pilot’ to a few of them to check the questions are sensibly phrased and effective 6. Make full use of the legal right (under Section 16 of the FOI Act) to advice and assistance from the public body on the best way to make a request (for example, on how to narrow a request to bring it under the cost limit). In practice, some FOI officers will be more helpful than others 7. Build relationships with FOI officers. Don’t shoot the messenger when you get an unwelcome answer. Think of FOI officers not as putting up obstacles but as providing a pathway to the material wanted. Sometimes they end up arguing the requester’s case within the authority to reluctant colleagues - so help them to do that. Read More: http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/collegeofjournalism/entries/04708c44-b746-4df3-ad4c-040d0f6726cd
  2. As reported by Craig Johnstone in news.com on 14 June 2008: Winds of accountability blow through FOI corridors | The Courier-Mail Winds of accountability blow through FOI corridors THAT unusual noise our state bureaucrats have had to put up with this week is the sweet rushing sound of fresh air of imminent change. All the signs are that Queensland's public service is in for some of the most sweeping changes to its culture and practices since Labor took government a decade ago this week. If the Government's rhetoric is to be believed, the ways in which Queenslanders are able to scrutinise how their state is run, and for whose benefit, are in for some dramatic improvement. Remarkably, given the past entrenched attitude of the Cabinet in which she has sat for 10 years, Premier Anna Bligh appears set to wave goodbye to the days of a secretive bureaucracy obsessed with process. Nine months after becoming Premier, her hitherto cautious progress on reform has broken into a gallop. If she has her way, government-owned businesses will come under much more scrutiny; the 30-year rule governing the release of Cabinet material will be cut to 10 years; and accessing government information generally will cease being a war of attrition. In the process, Queenslanders will witness an interesting test of the extent of Bligh's power within Government. This week she emerged from a two-hour Cabinet debate on proposed root-and-branch FOI reforms to declare she was happy to adopt the recommendations of David Solomon, who had been appointed to review the process. The theme running through Solomon's 141 recommendations, which add up to completely new law, is that the Government should stop spending vast amounts of time and effort holding back information and move to doing all it can to push information out. In Bligh's words, this amounts to a complete rethink of the architecture of gathering, storing and releasing government information. It will even have a new name: the Right to Information. "The Queensland public is the source of the power and legitimacy of the Queensland Government and it is absolutely imperative that the public is well-informed about the operations of government and has fair and reasonable access to the information that governments hold," Ms Bligh said. It was time, she said, to "recommit" to the spirit of FOI. As if to reinforce that change in thinking, Bligh and her Director-General, Ken Smith, this week also eased out some key government mandarins who had tended to have a major influence on the culture and behaviour of the Queensland bureaucracy, where adherence to process has come to be more valued than achieving results. Suddenly a Government, whose members routinely abused FOI law by wheeling trolley-loads of documents into Cabinet, appears ready for accountability. Within days of becoming Premier last September, Bligh appointed barrister and former Courier-Mail journalist David Solomon to head a review into the FOI laws, saying she was concerned about the growth in government culture that assumed any document considered by Cabinet should be kept secret. She would have had a fair idea what this former Electoral and Administrative Review Commission chairman would produce. "History in Queensland, as in many other jurisdictions, has proved unambiguously that there is little point legislating for access to information if there is no ongoing political will to support its effects," his report states. "The corresponding public sector cultural responses in administration of FOI inevitably move to crush the original promise of open government and, with it, accountability." Bligh has responded by saying she is a champion of openness. This, of course, has been said before. Her predecessor, Peter Beattie, often observed with a straight face that his government was the most accountable in the country while introducing changes that sapped the power of the original legislation, and his ministers and public servants sniggered about using "Freedom from Information". But, knowing she headed a Government with a record of concealment so large that The Courier-Mail could easily compile a list of 40 secrets it was keeping from the public, Bligh felt compelled to act. According to Solomon, if Bligh adopts his ideas Queensland will have some of the best right-to-information laws in the world. Certainly, the review has been met with almost universal acclaim from lawyers and others frustrated with the current FOI regime in this state and nationally. "Overall, this is good, positive stuff, not just for Queensland but for consideration elsewhere should government leaders show interest in reform," NSW policy consultant Peter Timmins wrote on his well-regarded FOI blog this week. Solomon has tried to replace complexity with clarity. Cabinet exemptions under the new law will be limited to three document categories: Estimates briefs, Question Time briefs and briefing books for incoming ministers. Confronted with a request for documents, officers would apply a simple public-interest test: Grant access unless its disclosure, on balance, would be contrary to the public interest. The Premier says her Cabinet colleagues have given Solomon's proposals a "very positive response", although some apparently have warned they may have to see how the changes affect their departments. Translated, that means such government-owned enterprises as Energex and Queensland Rail will get the chance to argue their case to remain exempt from FOI. Bligh has promised a Government response in two months, with a Bill expected to be debated and passed in Parliament within a year. She has also pledged not to use the Rudd Government's yet-to-be-completed review of federal FOI law to slow the pace of reform in Queensland. "I think it is important we move on them as quickly as is reasonably possible and work to get them right," she said. "This is part of a modern Queensland and, while these things always have some risk to government, in my view it is time for us to take the next step into openness." Timmins would like her to go a step further by immediately tackling the culture of secrecy. "It would be great to see an administrative direction from her in the meantime that agencies are to err on the side of disclosure unless real harm to essential public interests are likely from disclosure," he said. The many bureaucrats who do want change would have been encouraged by what Bligh said about the review. "This document represents a blueprint that could make Queensland the most open government in Australia," she said. "I think moving from a framework which has, as the report's authors described it, operated on a basis of people having to pull information out of the system to one where the system proactively pushes information out into the public arena as often as possible is a desirable way forward." The one quibble she seems to have with the review is its proposal to bring private organisations that have dealings with government into the RTI net. That would include private schools, charities and certain companies. "I have an obligation to talk to those organisations before adopting those recommendations," Bligh said. "But, by and large, the other recommendations ... have merit and the Government will, ultimately, pick them up." Real change, of course, is dependent on a Government that does not automatically assume that its interest and the public interest are one and the same. That is when Bligh's real political test will come.
  3. Almost one in five recent freedom of information requests have been denied, according to official figures published today. A total of 1,576 out of the 7,580 requests made to government departments and other public bodies between July and the end of September were blocked. The most common reason for refusing requests was that the answer contained personal information, the Ministry of Justice said. Some 572 requests were rejected on these grounds, as well as another 248 because criminal proceedings were ongoing. Other reasons for not disclosing information included confidentiality (193), because it was prohibited (120), law enforcement reasons (115) and because the answer might reveal too much about the creation of government policy (110). The total number of applications made under the Freedom of Information Act was the lowest since the legislation came into effect in 2005. The number of requests was 8% lower than in the same period in 2006. The Health and Safety Executive received more requests, 1,531, than any other department or agency, followed by the National Archives, with 1,026. The Ministry of Defence was the most questioned government department, with 667 requests, followed by the Department for Transport (482) and the Ministry of Justice (455). One in five FoI requests rejected | Special Reports | Guardian Unlimited Politics
  4. Information is the new infrastructure of society, according to Freedom of Information minister, Michael Wills MP. The former journalist told the Society of Editors that while technology was making information faster to access, the Government was acting responsibly with personal details. He said: "Public information should be more accessible, not just to a chosen few, but to all. Whereas years ago information was difficult to obtain, now everything is available at the click of a button. "Many people want to exercise power between elections as well as at them, and people are no longer as confident that the system enfranchises them as they once were. "Parliament must be at the centre of the decision making of this democracy. "Extraordinary new internet technologies are changing the relationships between newspapers and readers, broadcasters and viewers and politicians and their constituents. "In many ways information is the new infrastructure of our society today. "Its absolutely critical to ensure accountability of the state which is essential for a healthy democracy." Mr Wills, who is Minister of State at the Ministry of Justice, also reminded the conference that the Government was making positive changes to the Freedom of Information Act. It recently invested £350,000 to increase access to information for people making claims. He said the solution was to balance privacy with benefits of data sharing, scrutiny and accountability. "The media has always got their story but for members of the public that has not been the case," he said. Journalism jobs and news from Holdthefrontpage.co.uk
  5. MPs could be forced to reveal details of their spouses travel expenses following a victory by Freedom of Information campaigners yesterday. The House of Commons authorities announced they were giving up High Court battle to stop a Labour MP being forced to publish the details of her and her husband's journeys. Freedom of Information campaigners had requested to see an itemised breakdown of Labour MP Anne Moffat's travel expenses after it emerged that she had racked up a £40,000 bill in 2003. Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner, ruled that East Lothian MP Miss Moffat should submit her receipts for public scrutiny after finding that their release would not breach her privacy. Commons authorities then lodged an appeal against the order for the release of the travel claims with the High Court, but last night confirmed they had abandoned the fight. A spokeswoman for the Commons said: "An appeal was lodged with the High Court. After further consideration, this has now been withdrawn." A spokesman for Mr Thomas welcomed the decision saying that the public had the right to know about taxpayer-funded travel. "The journeys for which an MP may claim reimbursement relate to official business and are therefore paid for out of public funds," the spokesman said. "The public has a right to know how public money is spent by politicians and public officials. "MPs' travel expenses relate to individuals acting in an official, rather than a private, capacity and in the Information Commissioner's view, disclosure of this information will not impinge an MP's personal privacy." The move follows the publication yesterday of MPs' expenses and allowances for last year which revealed that they claimed a total of £87.6 million. Earlier this year, MPs were last night made to reveal details of their £5million a year travel expenses after losing a two-year battle under the Freedom of Information Act and had to admit to some startling claims. Yesterday's decision means they may now also have to disclose how much of this travel related to their spouses, who are entitled to make up to 15 free journeys a year. The Prime Minister Gordon Brown has pledged the government would be more open in dealing with FOI requests. He also launched a three-month public consultation on extending the Freedom of information Act to private firms. FOI victory as MP is forced to reveal spouse's £40,000 travel expenses | the Daily Mail
  6. The Cayman Islands Freedom of Information Implementation Plan is now available in draft form for public comment. This plan will guide the Cayman Islands Government’s activities as it prepares to implement the new Freedom of Information (FOI) Law, and FOI Coordinator Carole Excell urges all residents to be part of the process by reading the document and submitting their comments and suggestions. “The implementation plan for the FOI Law will guide the actions of government beyond January 2009, which is why the FOI Unit is actively seeking public input to the process,” she said. January 2009 is the date set for the law to come into effect. To view a copy, residents may download a copy of the draft Implementation Plan from www.foi.gov.ky or visit their nearest public library. “The FOI Unit wants everyone to have access to a copy of the plan, and has thus partnered with Public Libraries to provide copies of the plan in all reference sections of the Islands’ libraries,” Ms Excell said. Comments may be sent to foi@gov.ky or delivered to the FOI Unit at Elizabethan Square, Building “D”. The deadline for submissions is Friday, 15 November 2007. FOI implementation plan ready for public comment
  7. 13 September 2007 Article by Caroline Bush In Re Stephanie Peatling and Department of Employment and Workplace Relations [2007] AATA 1011, the Administrative Appeals Tribunal considered whether the fees for processing a media outlet's request for documents under the Freedom of Information Act 1982 (Cth) should be reduced on the grounds of public interest. The Tribunal decided that even though there were considerable public interest grounds to support a waiver of the fees, the countervailing "commercial benefit" that a media outlet would derive from the release of the documents outweighed the public interest in the release of the relevant documents. The facts Ms Peatling, in her capacity as a reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald ("SMH"), lodged an application with the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations for access to documents used by the Department in formulating the Government's "Welfare-to-Work" policy. As part of her request, Ms Peatling asked that any charges be halved "for the public interest". The Department advised Ms Peatling that she was not entitled to a reduction of fees, as it concluded that there was no evidence that the documents would be made available to the public and therefore she had not shown how the provision of the documents in question would benefit the public. The Department also found that the payment of the fee would not cause financial hardship to the SMH. Following an unsuccessful internal review of the decision Ms Peatling lodged an application with the Tribunal for a review of the internal review decision. The Legislative framework The issue for the Tribunal was whether the charges should have been reduced under section 29(5) of the Act. Section 29(5) of the Act says: "(5) Without limiting the matters the agency or Minister may take into account in determining whether or not to reduce or not impose the charge, the agency or Minister must take into account: whether the payment of the charge, or part of it, would cause financial hardship to the applicant, or to a person on whose behalf the application was made; and whether the giving of access to the document in question is in the general public interest or interest of a substantial section of the public". A memorandum prepared by the Attorney General's Department, the Freedom of Information Memorandum No.29, offers guidance in relation to section 29(5) of the Act. In relation to the issue of "financial hardship", the Memorandum states that financial hardship means more than an applicant having to meet a charge from his or her own resources. On the issue of "public interest", the Memorandum sets out a two-part test. The first question is whether the benefit of the release of the information will flow to the public at large and the second question is whether making the information more widely available would benefit the public. The Memorandum also provides that "f an agency concludes that giving access would be in the public interest in a particular case, it should grant full remission of fees or not impose any charges in the absence of any other relevant countervailing factor". The Memorandum lists a number of examples of relevant countervailing considerations, including "where the applicant could reasonably be expected to obtain a commercial or other benefit from disclosure". The Tribunal's decision The Tribunal was ultimately satisfied that countervailing considerations outweighed the public interest in releasing the documents and that the decision under review should be affirmed. The Tribunal reached six key conclusions in the process of making this decision. First, the Department argued that a majority of the documents contained confidential information (many were Cabinet-in-Confidence) and would be exempt from release. The Tribunal, however, found that even if only a handful of the documents could be released, this should not disentitle an applicant to a reduction in fees on public interest grounds. Second, there was an issue as to whether documents would come to the attention of the public. However, evidence was given that any documents released would be posted online by SMH and the Tribunal was ultimately satisfied that the documents, if released, would come to the public's attention. Third, the Department argued that the release of the information was not in the public interest as the information was potentially confusing as it did not represent broader economic effects which may occur as a result of the reform. However, the Tribunal found that the fact that information was potentially misleading and confusing does not make its release contrary to the public interest. Fourth, the Department also argued that some of the documents in question had been superseded. Seeking guidance again from the decision in McKinnon, the Tribunal found that the release of superseded documents would not make a valuable contribution to the public debate and could undermine the public integrity of the government's decision making process. Fifth, the Department argued that the information in many of the documents contained highly sensitive economic data which, if released, could cause persons or organisations to distort their behaviour. The Tribunal however, determined that the Department had not made out this assertion. In particular, it had not given examples of the kinds of behavioural changes that could occur or shown why those changes would be detrimental. This left only the issue of "countervailing considerations" to be resolved. The Tribunal concluded that although the SMH would not necessarily derive a direct commercial benefit from disclosure, the FOI request was made within the ordinary course of the SMH's publishing business. The applicant was seeking the documents for the purposes of the SMH's business as a newspaper and the SMH intended to publish articles derived from the information. In this sense, the SMH would derive some benefit from the release of the information. The Tribunal considered it relevant, in this context, that there was no evidence that the SMH would not proceed with the request unless the charges were reduced. The Tribunal decided that these countervailing considerations outweighed the public interest values in section 29(5)(b) and that the decision under review should be affirmed Implications Although a media-specific case, the decision in Peatling has broader implications for Government agencies in terms of the way they consider applications for the waiver of fees and charges for FOI requests. While the question of public interest under section 29(5) of the Act requires an assessment of whether: the release will flow to the public; and the release would actually be something of benefit to the public; the assessment of these two factors requires a balancing of various considerations and ultimately, countervailing considerations, such as the commercial benefit that an applicant may derive from the release of documents, may outweigh the public interest and negate the need to waive fees. Clayton Utz - Australia - When Does The Public Interest Require FOI Fees To Be Waived? (13/09/2007 13:07:05) from Mondaq
  8. THE RISK of a terrorist attack was wrongly used by the Scottish Executive as an excuse to keep information about radioactive contamination of drinking water secret. The Scottish information commissioner, Kevin Dunion, has found the Executive guilty of breaching freedom of information legislation by failing to provide documents from a file entitled "Release of radionuclides in drinking water systems". The Sunday Herald originally requested the documents in December 2005, and appealed to Dunion after they were withheld by the Executive. The verdict of his investigation, received on Friday, is a damning indictment of the official secrecy that persists in the Scottish civil service. "A notable feature of this case is that the Executive has suggested release of this information may have dire consequences," Dunion said. "It has said that release could constitute an offence under anti-terrorism laws, that it might harm national security and it could even be misused in a way which could be lethal to the public." Such claims, however, turned out to be completely unfounded, Dunion concluded. "After considering the nature and content of the information being withheld I found that not only are these highly worrying claims overstated, in fact it is not possible to find any justification for them at all," he said. The Executive argued that releasing the documents would breach section 79 of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 because it "might prejudice the security of any nuclear site or of any nuclear material". But it failed to produce any evidence to back up its case. According to Dunion, the six withheld documents are about "the financing and administrative arrangements involved in setting up a joint research project". They consist of "innocuous exchanges" with the UK government, he said. Dunion pointed out that the government's Health Protection Agency had already published detailed guidance on how to respond to an attempt to poison drinking water with up to 23 different radionuclides. Authorities have been advised to draw up contingency plans, including possible treatments and alternative sources of supply. "If this kind of information is readily available, it is inconceivable that disclosure of the information with- held by the Executive in this case could have the effect upon national security and public safety which it alleges," Dunion said. The Executive argued the documents should remain secret as their release could damage relations with the UK government, or inhibit the formulation of Scottish administrative policy. But both arguments were dismissed by Dunion. He concluded that the Executive had incorrectly applied three sections of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002, and was in breach of part one of the act. He has ordered the withheld documents to be released within 45 days. A spokesman for the Scottish Executive said: "We have just received the decision from the information commissioner on this case, which dates back to the previous administration, and are considering its terms. It would be premature to comment at this stage." Executive Guilty Of Using Terrorism As An Excuse To Refuse Foi Request (from Sunday Herald)
  9. Cayman Islands The draft Freedom of Information Bill has been sent to the Legislative Assembly for debate in this financial year’s (2007-08) second meeting of the House that begins on 31 August. In conjunction with that, the draft bill was published on 31 July 2007, in Supplement number one with Extraordinary Gazette number 18. The bill is for a law to give to the public a general right of access to records. The gazettal marks the end of an extensive period of public consultation on this landmark legislation that contains some 58 clauses. The consultative exercise began with Leader of Government Business Hon Kurt Tibbetts’ tabling in the Legislative Assembly in November 2005 a draft white paper for freedom of information on a wide range of public records. Following the tabling of the draft FOI bill, government spread its consultation across the Cayman Islands with community meetings in each district. Additionally, comments were obtained from the general public and private organisations through email or printed submissions delivered to the Government Administration Building. In its present form the draft bill seeks as far as possible to include sentiments of the public and private organisations. Once the draft FOI bill becomes law, it would apply to public authorities and all records, regardless of when they were created. It would, however, exempt from disclosure records affecting sensitive aspects of security, defence, international relations, confidential information, the national economy, government’s deliberative process, and commercial interests. At the same time, the law would allow for the release of such information, if it is determined to be in the ‘public interest’. Regulations for the law, which are yet to be submitted, will define ‘public interest’. There is to be an independent Freedom of Information Commissioner who has the power to order release of certain information, based on a complaint from a member of the public. This Commissioner is to report to the Legislative Assembly only. The proposed law would also protect from persecution or any form of discrimination, any person who releases in good faith information on public wrongdoing or that would relate to serious threats to health, safety or the environment. Draft Freedom of Information Bill sent to Parliament
  10. By David Rose Tuesday, 20 February 2007 An MP has pledged to lead a Commons revolt over a controversial attempt to exempt Parliament from the Freedom of Information Act. A private members bill, introduced by former Tory chief whip David Maclean, would, if it becomes law, prevent journalists and others from using FoI requests to obtain information contained in MPs' correspondence with government departments and other public bodies. But Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrat MP for Lewes, has vowed to oppose the bill when it comes before the Commons for its crucial Report Stage and Third Reading on 20 April. Maclean's Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill has already been given an unopposed Second Reading and has been approved by 19-member committee drawn from MPs in all parties. Opponents can attempt to block Private Members Bills at the Report Stage using filibustering tactics. To prevent Baker and other critics from talking out the two-clause bill, Maclean may be forced to muster 100 MPs in order to force a closure vote and secure the Commons' approval to be sent to the House of Lords. Maclean has been impressed by the amount of support he has secured. Among the MPs who spoke up for the Bill in committee were Labour MPs George Howarth (Knowsley North and Sefton) Kevan Jones, (North Durham) and Fraser Kemp (Houghton and Washington East). Liberal Democrat MP Nick Harvey (North Devon) also raised no objection. Harvey, chairman of the House of Commons Commission, told MPs: "Requests under the FoI Act are becoming increasingly intrusive, particularly on issues such as t he additional costs allowance. In that respect, they are getting into very personal realms - they are going behind the front door into Members' homes." While the Government insists the Bill must be decided on a free vote, Tony Wright, Labour chairman of the Commons Public Administration Committee, has accused the whips of collaborating to ensure the Bill gets approved. Constitutional Affairs minister Bridget Prentice has also indicated where her own sympathies lie. "We should not allow the 2000 Act to disrupt the vital relationship between and MP and his or her constituents, and the time has come to address the issue," she told MPs. Baker told Press Gazette: "The Government is backtracking on the FoI Act. "This is a throw back to the 1950s when Parliament was a private members' club. "If this is passed we will have the absurd position of exempting from the legislation those people who passed the law." Baker recently won a case before the Information Tribunal which forced the disclosure of more details of MPs' travel expenses. Press Gazette - UK Journalism News and Journalism Jobs
  11. ganpat1956

    NUJ Warns FG on FOI Bill

    Members of the Nigeria Union of Journalists yesterday joined their counterparts across the world in celebrating the World Press Freedom Day, with a call on President Olusegun Obasanjo to sign the Freedom of Information Bill into law. The Bill, which was passed by the National Assembly, had been sent to the President on March 23, but Obasanjo was recently quoted to have said he had serious problems with the title, as well as some provisions in the Bill. But speaking at the commemoration of the World Press Freedom day in Abuja yesterday, National President of NUJ, Mr Ndagene Akwu, expressed deep concern about non-passage of the Bill that had practically been struggling for passage right through Obasanjo’s two terms. “Democracy depends absolutely on informed citizens, and in order to play their part in a democracy, citizens must have unhindered access to free, diverse and independent news media. It is our belief that the impediments working against the practice of journalism will be drastically reduced with the passage of the Freedom of Information Bill. We expect the president to sign the Bill into law, even if it’s on the 28th of May. No government can afford to toy with the Freedom of Information.” Executive Secretary, National Human Rights Commission, Mrs Kehinde Ajoni, described the theme “Press Freedom, Safety of Journalists and Impunity,” as apt, considering the hostile environment journalists practice their profession globally. She said it was only recently that the media started focusing on human rights, “though they too suffer human rights abuses. “We shall continue to promote free press, because it is only when media freedom is protected that it can fight for human rights.” In support of the World Press Freedom Day, the U.S. government said it views freedom of the press as a key component of democracy. The U.S., in a press statement made available to THISDAY in Abuja, yesterday affirmed that “free exchange of ideas fosters accountable government, and allows the view points of many, including the marginalised in a society to be heard.” THISDAY ONLINE
  12. ganpat1956

    MPs want FoI

    AN ATTEMPT to make MPs' allowances and expenses exempt from the Freedom of Information Act has been halted. Former Tory Minister David Maclean claimed his Private Members Bill (which he withdrew today (Friday, 27 April)) was aimed at protecting MPs private correspondence with and about constituents. But opponents said that was nonsense and the Penrith and the Border MP wanted to stop publication of embarrassing details about their expenses and allowances. Cambridgeshire MPs David Howarth, Andrew Lansley and Malcolm Moss all made clear their opposition to the move, as did Suffolk West's Richard Spring. Cambridge City Liberal Democrat MP David Howarth said: "I am opposed to this proposal. Freedom of Information should apply to all public bodies and obviously that should include Parliament." Liberal Democrat MP Norman Lamb - who angered colleagues by using the FoI Act to obtain and publish the details of MPs travel expenses earlier this year, told the News: "It is nonsense to say it is about protecting MPs correspondence with constituents or government departments." Cambridgeshire North-East Tory MP Malcolm Moss said: "I don't quite understand what Mr Maclean is trying to do. Correspondence with and about constituents is protected by other legislation." Mr Spring said: "I am relaxed about publication of MPs' expenses." CEN News : Region-wide : MPs want FoI
  13. A study of the Government’s proposals for changing Freedom of Information legislation has lambasted the plans as "financially flawed and politically incoherent". The idea - to reduce the number of freedom of information requests and save time and money spent on them – would cost £12m to bring in, with annual costs likely to wipe out savings achieved, according to analysis from the charity Public Concern at Work. Guy Dehn, the charity's director, said: "The Government needs to go back to the drawing board and carry out a proper cost-benefit analysis." Planned changes to the Freedom of Information and Data Protection Regulations 2007 could boost the number of requests rejected by local and public authorities purely on cost grounds before they are even looked at. Under the draft regulations the Government is proposing that the time officials spend reading information and thinking about it should be calculated separately. Cost limits of £450 for local government and £600 for central bodies could be reached more quickly under new ways of operating, which means many requests might not even be considered. Public Concern at Work also maintains that past applications which have saved large sums of public money will, under the proposals, now be blocked because they cost too much. Using figures published by the Government which suggest that it costs officials between £1 and £2 to read a single page, the charity calculates that it will cost £7.2m for one official in each of the 100,000 public bodies to read the new rules and guidance restricting FOI requests and a further £5m for them to think about them. The charity warned that if media organisations followed the Government's example and threatened to charge for the time their journalists spent reading and considering reports published by Government and other public bodies, ministers would not be able to take the high moral ground with a move that would damage the political process. Guy added: “While it is clear that freedom of information deters waste, inefficiency and fraud across the public sector, all these benefits have been ignored in these proposals.” Public Concern at Work is the whistleblowing charity which runs a free helpline for individuals, does consultancy and training work for organisations, campaigns on public policy and has a public education and schools programme. Journalism jobs and news from Holdthefrontpage.co.uk
  14. Ministers have slashed the amount of information they allow the public to know, a report has revealed. It showed that a string of Whitehall departments have tightened the secrecy surrounding their activities despite Tony Blair's promise that Labour would bring an era of open government. Among ministers whose civil servants are now refusing to answer more than half of all the questions put by the public under Labour's Freedom of Information Act are Home Secretary John Reid, Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett, andTrade Secretary Alistair Darling. Even Lord Chancellor Lord Falconer - the minister in charge of the freedom of information system that Mr Blair once boasted would bring 'a dramatic difference to the way Britain is governed' - has given answers to fewer than four out of ten requests for information. The cutback in what Whitehall allows the public to find out comes in advance of Lord Falconer's planned new restrictions on freedom of information law. These would prevent MPs, lobby groups or journalists from putting more than one request in every three months, and which would also greatly increase the number of requests turned down on the grounds that they would cost too much in bureaucrats' time. Critics say the effect of Lord Falconer's new rules will be to ensure that the only people who would be allowed to get information out of Whitehall would be those who do not ask for it. But details of the requests already turned down even before Lord Falconer can bring in his new rules show that information released has been cut back by many ministries. The report from the Department for Constitutional Affairs showed that Lord Falconer's own office gave full answers in response to only 39 per cent of requests that might have been answered in the three months between July and September. The 39 per cent compared with 40 per cent in the last three months of 2005. Mrs Beckett's Foreign Office answered only 30 per cent of requests, compared with 33 per cent at the end of last year. Mr Reid's Home Office answered 40 per cent, up from 38 per cent at the end of last year but down from 49 per cent in the early part of this year. The Northern Ireland Office answered 47 per cent compared with 71 per cent at the end of 2005. Across all Government departments, 60 per cent of requests are now being met, a fall of two per cent on six months earlier. Of nearly 63,000 Freedom of Information requests made since the law came into force two years ago, more than 26,000 have been answered only with silence. The figures come as ministers prove reluctant to part with information while in Government that they said should be public when they were in opposition. Mr Blair declared in March 1996 that "we want to end the obsessive and unnecessary secrecy which surround Government activity and make Government information available to the public unless there are good reasons not to do so." But the Government has refused, for example, to release early drafts of the advice provided to Mr Blair by Attorney General Lord Goldsmith on the legality of the war with Iraq. It has declined to give new details of Tony and Cherie Blair's guests at Chequers since the couple were embarrassed by publication in 2004 of names of people they had officially entertained. Tories said that ministers were trying to shut the public out. Shadow Constitutional Affairs Secretary Oliver Heald said: "I fear that the Government may be attempting to close down public scrutiny by curtailing the public's right to know with this more restrictive regime." Ministers accused of undermining FOI laws as 30 per cent of requests rebuffed | News | This is London
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