Tag Archives: freedom of information

Commission on Freedom of Information: submission

Since it appears that the Independent Commission on Freedom of Information [FOI] has not published all of the received submissions, I thought I’d post what I’d provided via email.

I’d answered two of the questions with two case studies. The first on application of section 35 and 36 exemptions and the safe space. The second on the proposal for potential charges.

On the Commission website, the excel spreadsheet of evidence submitted online, tab 2 notes that NHS England asked belatedly for its submission be unpublished.

I wonder why.

Follow up to both these FOI requests are now long overdue in 2016. The first from NHS England for the care.data decision making  behind the 2015 decision not to publish a record of whether part of the board meetings were to be secret. Transparency needs to be seen in action, to engender public trust. After all, they’re deciding things like how care.data and genomics will be at the “heart of the transformation of the NHS.”

The second is overdue at the Department for Education on the legal basis for identifiable sensitive data releases from the National Pupil Database that meets Schedule 3 of the Data Protection Act 1998 to permit this datasharing with commercial third parties.

Both in line with the apparently recommended use of FOI
according to Mr. Grayling who most recently said:

“It is a legitimate and important tool for those who want to understand why and how Government is taking decisions and it is not the intention of this Government to change that”.  [Press Gazette]

We’ll look forward to see whether that final sentence is indeed true.

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Independent Commission on Freedom of Information Submission
Question 1: a) What protection should there be for information relating to the internal deliberations of public bodies? b) For how long after a decision does such information remain sensitive? c) Should different protections apply to different kinds of information that are currently protected by sections 35 and 36?

A “safe space” in which to develop and discuss policy proposals is necessary. I can demonstrate where it was [eventually] used well, in a case study of a request I made to NHS England. [1]

The current protection afforded to the internal deliberations of public bodies are sufficient given section 35 and 36 exemptions. I asked in October 2014 for NHS England to publish the care.data planning and decision making for the national NHS patient data extraction programme. This programme has been controversial [2]. It will come at great public expense and to date has been harmful to public and professional trust with no public benefit. [3]

NHS England refused my request based on Section 22 [intended for future publication]. [4] However ten months later the meeting minutes had never been published. In July 2015, after appeal, the Information Commissioner issued an Information Notice and NHS England published sixty-three minutes and papers in August 2015.

In these released documents section 36 exemption was then applied to only a tiny handful of redacted comments. This was sufficient to protect the decisions that NHS England had felt to be most sensitive and yet still enable the release of a year’s worth of minutes.

Transparency does not mean that difficult decisions cannot be debated since only outcomes and decisions are recorded, not every part of every discussion verbatim.

The current provision for safe space using these exemptions is effective and in this case would have been no different made immediately after the meeting or one and a half years later.  If anything, publication sooner may have resulted in better informed policy and decision making through wider involvement from professionals and civil society.  The secrecy in the decision making did not build trust.

When policies such as these are found to have no financial business cost-benefit case for example, I believe it is strongly in the public interest to have transparency of these facts, to scrutinise the policy governance in the public interest to enable early intervention when seen to be necessary.
In the words of the Information Commissioner:

“FOIA can rightly challenge and pose awkward questions to public authorities. That is part of democracy. However, checks and balances are needed to ensure that the challenges are proportionate when viewed against all the other vital things a public authority has to do.

“The Commissioner believes that the current checks and balances in the legislation are sufficient to achieve this outcome.” [5]

Given that most public bodies, including NHS England’s Board, routinely publish its minutes this would seem a standard good practice to be expected and I believe routine publication of meeting minutes would have raised trustworthiness of the programme and its oversight and leadership.

The same section 36 exemption could have been applied from the start to the small redactions that were felt necessary balanced against the public interest of open and transparent decision making.

I do not believe more restrictive applications should be made than are currently under sections 35 and 36.

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Question 6: Is the burden imposed on public authorities under the Act justified by the public interest in the public’s right to know? Or are controls needed to reduce the burden of FoI on public authorities?

As an individual I made 40 requests of schools and 2 from the Department for Education which may now result in benefit for 8 million children and their families, as well as future citizens.

The transparency achieved through these Freedom of Information requests will I hope soon transform the culture at the the Department for Education from one of secrecy to one of openness.

There is the suggestion that a Freedom of Information request would incur a charge to the applicant.

I believe that the benefits of the FOI Act in the public interest outweigh the cost of FOI to public authorities.  In this second example [6], I would ask the Commission to consider if I had not been able to make these Freedom of Information requests due to cost, and therefore I was not able to present evidence to the Minister, Department, and the Information Commissioner, would the panel members support the secrecy around the ongoing risk that current practices pose to children and our future citizens?

Individual, identifiable and sensitive pupil data are released to third parties from the National Pupil Database without telling pupils, parents and schools or their consent. This Department for Education (DfE) FOI request aimed to obtain understanding of any due diligence and the release process: privacy impact and DfE decision making, with a focus on its accountability.

This was to enable transparency and scrutiny in the public interest, to increase the understanding of how our nation’s children’s personal data are used by government, commercial third parties, and even identifiable and sensitive data given to members of the press.

Chancellor Mr. Osborne spoke on November 17 about the importance of online data protection:

“Each of these attacks damages companies, their customers, and the public’s trust in our collective ability to keep their data and privacy safe.”[…] “Imagine the cumulative impact of repeated catastrophic breaches, eroding that basic faith… needed for our online economy & social life to function.”

Free access to FOI enabled me as a member of the public to ask and take action with government and get information from schools to improve practices in the broad public interest.

If there was a cost to this process I could not afford to ask schools to respond.  Schools are managed individually, and as such I requested the answer to the question; whether they were aware of the National Pupil Database and how the Department shared their pupils’ data onwardly with third parties.

I asked a range of schools in the South and East. In order to give a fair picture of more than one county I made requests from a range of types of school – from academy trusts to voluntary controlled schools – 20 primary and 20 secondary.  Due to the range of schools in England and Wales [7] this was a small sample.

Building even a small representative picture of pupil data privacy arrangements in the school system therefore required a separate request to each school.

I would not have been able to do this, had there been a charge imposed for each request.  This research subsequently led me to write to the Information Commissioner’s Office, with my findings.

Were this only to be a process that access costs would mean organisations or press could enter into due to affordability, then the public would only be able to find out what matters or was felt important to those organisations, but not what matters to individuals.

However what matters to one individual might end up making a big difference to many people.

Individuals may be interested in what are seen as minority topics, perhaps related to discrimination according to gender, sexuality, age, disability, class, race or ethnicity.  If individuals cannot afford to  challenge government policies that matter to them as an individual, we may lose the benefit that they can bring when they go on to champion the rights of more people in the country as a whole.

Eight million children’s records, from children aged 2-19 are stored in the National Pupil Database. I hope that due to the FOI request increased transparency and better practices will help restore their data protections for individuals and also re-establish organisational trust in the Department.

Information can be used to enable or constrain citizenship. In order to achieve universal access to human rights to support participation, transparency and accountability, I appeal that the Commission recognise the need for individuals to tackle vested interests, unjust laws and policies.

Any additional barriers such as cost, only serve to reduce equality and make society less just. There is however an immense intangible value in an engaged public which is hard to measure. People are more likely to be supportive of public servant decision making if they are not excluded from it.

Women for example are underrepresented in Parliament and therefore in public decision making. Further, the average gap within the EU pay is 16 per cent, but pay levels throughout the whole of Europe differ hugely, and in the South East of the UK men earn 25 per cent more than their female counterparts. [8]  Women and mothers like me may therefore find it more difficult to participate in public life and to make improvements on behalf of other families and children across the country.

To charge for access to information about our public decision making process could therefore be excluding and discriminatory.

I believe these two case studies show that the Act’s intended objectives, on parliamentary introduction — to ‘transform the culture of Government from one of secrecy to one of openness’; ‘raise confidence in the processes of government, and enhance the quality of decision making by Government’; and to ‘secure a balance between the right to information…and the need for any organisation, including Government, to be able to formulate its collective policies in private’ — work in practice.

If anything, they need strengthened to ensure accessibility.

Any actions to curtail free and equal access to these kinds of information would not be in the public interest and a significant threat to the equality of opportunity offered to the public in making requests. Charging would particularly restrict access to FOI for poorer individuals and communities who are often those already excluded from full public participation in public life.
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[1] https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/caredata_programme_board_minutes
[2] http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/dec/12/nhs-patient-care-data-sharing-scheme-delayed-2015-concerns
[3] http://www.statslife.org.uk/news/1672-new-rss-research-finds-data-trust-deficit-with-lessons-for-policymakers
[4] http://jenpersson.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/caredataprogramme_FOI.pdf
[5] https://ico.org.uk/media/about-the-ico/consultation-responses/2015/1560175/ico-response-independent-commission-on-freedom-of-information.pdf
[6] http://jenpersson.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/NPD_FOI_submissionv3.pdf
[7] http://www.newschoolsnetwork.org/sites/default/files/Comparison%20of%20school%20types.pdf
[8] http://www.equalpayportal.co.uk/statistics/

Act now: Stand up and speak out for your rights to finding out the facts #saveFOI

The Freedom of Information Act has enabled me to stand up for my children’s rights. It really matters to me. And we might lose it.

For every member of the public, who has ever or who has never used their rights under the Freedom of Information Act laws, the government consultation on changing them that closes today is worth caring about. If you haven’t yet had your say, go and take action here >> now.  If it is all you have time for before the end of today, you can sign 38 degrees petition or write an email to your MP.

Or by the end of today you can reply to the call for evidence. There is further guidance on the Campaign For Freedom of Information’s website. 38 Degrees have also got this plain English version.

Please do. Now. It closes today, on November 20th.

If you need convinced why it matters to me and it should to you, read on.

What will happen

If the proposed changes come to pass, information about public accountability will be lost. Political engagement will not be open to all equally. It will promote an unfair society in which individuals are not only prevented from taking part in full public life, but prevented from understanding decisions made about them or that affect them. Campaign groups will be constrained from standing up for human rights by cost.  The press will be restrained in what they can ask.

MySociety has a brilliant summary.  Michael Sheen spoke up calling it “nothing short of a full frontal attack” on the principles of democratic government. And Tom Watson spoke of three serious instances where facts would have stayed hidden, were it not for access made using the law of Freedom of Information:

1. death rates in cardiac patient care
2. cases when the police use Tasers on children
3. the existence of cracks in the nuclear power station at Hinckley

Why does FOI matter to me personally? In Education.

Because it’s enabled me to start a conversation to get the Department for Education to start to improve their handling of our 8 million children’s personal and sensitive data they hold in the National Pupil Database for England and Wales. Through FOI I asked for unpublished facts how many releases of identifiable personal data of school pupils have been fast-tracked at the Department of Education without panel oversight. And to see the panel terms of reference which are still not on their website.

The request: whatdotheykknow.com
The outcome:
National Pupil Database FOI case study summary here.

I’m now coordinating calls for changes on behalf of the 8m children whose records they hold and parents across the country.

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Why does FOI matter to me personally? In Health.

Because Freedom of Information law has enabled public transparency of decision making and accountability of the care.data programme board decision making that was kept secret for over a year. NHS England refused to publish them. Their internal review declined appeal. The Information Commissioner’s Office upheld it.

The current protection afforded to the internal deliberations of public bodies are sufficient given section 35 and 36 exemptions. In fact my case study, while highlighting that NHS England refused to release information, also shows that only a handful of genuine redactions were necessary, using Section 36 to keep them hidden, when the minutes were finally released.

In October 2014 I simply wanted to see the meeting minutes form part of the public record of care.data planning. I wanted to see the cost-benefit business case and scrutinise it against the benefits case that the public were told of at every public engagement event I had been to.  When at every turn the public is told how little money the NHS can afford to spend I wanted scrutiny of what the programme would cost at national and local levels. It was in the public interest to better inform public debate about the merits of the national programme. And I strongly believe that it is in the public interest to be informed and fully understand the intention and programme that demands the use of sensitive personal data.

The request: whatdotheyknow.com
The outcome: care.data FOI case study summary here.

Others could use this information I hoped, to ask the right questions about missing meeting minutes and transparency, and for everyone to question why there was no cost-benefit business plan at all in private; while the public kept being told of the benefits.  And it shows that data collection is further set to expand, without public debate.

Since then the programme has been postoned again and work is in progress on improved public engagement to enable public and professional confidence.

What has Freedom of Information achieved?

One of the most memorable results of Freedom of Information was the MPs expenses scandal. Who knows how much this Freedom of Information Request saved the taxpayers in immeasurable amounts of future spending on duck houses since MPs have been required to publish expenses since 2010? Four MPs were jailed for false accounting. Peers were expelled. Second homes and what appeared to the public as silly spending on sundries were revealed. Mr. Cameron apologized in 2009, saying he was “appalled” by the expenses. The majority of MPs had done nothing illegal but the Freedom of Information request enabled the start of a process of increased transparency to the public which showed where activities, while permitted by law, were simply unethical or unreasonable.

Historical record

Information published under the Freedom of Information Act can help to ensure that important records of decision-making processes are retained as part of the historic background to government.

Increased trust

The right information at the right time helps make better decisions, make spending more transparent and makes policies and practices more trustworthy.

Access to official information can also improve public confidence where public sector bodies are seen as being open. In a 2011 survey carried out on behalf of the Information Commissioner’s Office, 81% of public bodies questioned agreed that the Act had increased the public’s trust in their organisation.

A key argument made by the commission is that those in public office need private space for decision making. The Information Commissioner’s Office countered this in their submission to the consultation saying,

“there is a distinction between a need for a private space, depending on the circumstances and a desire for secrecy across a broad area of public sector activity. It was the latter tendency that FOIA was intended to correct.”

So how much more “private space” do public servants need?

Holding back information

When information that are judged should not be released in the public interest, there are already exemptions that can be applied to prevent disclosure of information under the Freedom of Information Act. [1]

The exemptions include:

  • if the information can easily be accessed by other means – e.g. the internet or published documents
  • if the information is personal information
  • if the information is provided in confidence (but only if legally enforceable)
  • when there is a legal reason not to disclose
  • if the information is about national security, defence, the economy, law enforcement, formulation of Government policy, health and safety, communications with Her Majesty or other royalty, international relations, intended for future publication and commercial interests. (All exemptions in this group must be tested to see if disclosure is in the public interest.)

In addition to these exemptions, organisations can withhold information if it will take more than two-and-a-half days to provide it, or they cannot identify what information is needed (although they have to work with the requester to clarify what is being requested).

They can also withhold information if they decide the request is vexatious.

Does it cost us too much to administer?

Some people who are supportive of these changes say they are concerned about costs in answering requests but have perhaps not considered the savings in exceptional cases (like the Expenses Scandal outcome). And as mySociety has reported [2], money spent responding to Freedom of Information requests also needs to be considered fairly in the context of wider public spending. In 2012 it was reported that Staffordshire County Council had spent £38,000 in a year responding to Freedom of Information requests. The then Director of mySociety, Tom Steinberg, commented:

“From this I can see that oversight by citizens and journalists cost only £38,000 from a yearly total budget of £1.3bn. I think it is fantastic that Staffordshire County Council can provide such information for only 0.002 per cent of its operating budget.”

Why does the government want to make itself less transparent? Even the Information Commissioner’s office has replied to the consultation to say that the Commissioner does not consider that significant changes to the core principles of the legislation are needed. This is a good law, that gives the public rights in our favour and transparency into how we are governed and tax money spent.

How will the value of FOI be measured of what would be lost if the changes are made?

What can you do?

The call for evidence is here and there is further guidance on the Campaign For Freedom of Information’s website. 38 Degrees have also put together this super-easy Plain English version.

To have your say in the consultation closing on November 20th go online.

Or simply call or write to your MP.  Today. This really matters.


References:

[1] Requests can be refused https://ico.org.uk/for-organisations/guide-to-freedom-of-information/refusing-a-request/

[2] MySociety opposes restrictions https://www.mysociety.org/2015/11/11/voices-from-whatdotheyknow-why-we-oppose-foi-act-restrictions/

[3] National Pupil Database FOI case study summary here

[4] My care.data programme board FOI case study summary here