AccessDocs is now dormant!

Thanks for visiting the blog. I am no longer updating it, but will be leaving all the content online.

You can find out about my current journalism work (and contact details) on my website.

For reference, here are some links to the most frequently read articles on AccessDocs:

Thanks for reading,



FOI shows council was wrong over Dale Farm eviction support

Last year’s Dale Farm eviction // (Photo: The Advocacy Project – Flikr/CC)

When Basildon council evicted travellers from Dale Farm in October, it did so with the support of the borough’s residents. So said Tory council leader Tony Ball, just weeks before bailiffs turned up at the site.

“I’m absolutely clear,” he claimed, “the overwhelming majority of emails, letters, phone calls I’ve had, not only from people in Basildon, but up and down the country and some from abroad, support the council’s position.”

But the council’s own records suggest otherwise. According to figures released following a Freedom of Information request, Basildon council received a total of 5,472 letters and emails condemning the eviction. This compared to just 768 messages in the council’s favour.

Exposed: How Afghan DNA samples were lost by the British Government after a “commercial decision”

The DNA was lost after DHL’s “commercial decision” to fly via Bahrain. // Photo: Dirk-Jan Kraan (Flikr/CC)

In February last year, British Embassy officials in Afghanistan sent a package on a flight to Britain containing DNA samples and a collection of sensitive personal documents.

But a “commercial decision” to take the delivery on a detour led to the bag being lost.

A series of delays, mistakes and poor decisions left the items unfound for nine months, while those responsible failed to apologise.

‘Diplomatic Bag’ number AF24 had been handed to delivery company DHL in Kabul. It contained DNA samples from an Afghan family who were applying for British visas. They were sent alongside their passport photos, Afghan identity cards, dates of birth and a picture of the whole family.

The bag also included a separate passport application, a set of Psychological Health Screening tests from Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) staff, as well as a woman’s bank details, home address and invoices.

The delivery company held on to the bags in Afghanistan for more than two weeks “because of a local public holiday”, before loading it onto a plane on 2 March.

But rather than sending it straight to the UK, DHL chose to put the bag on a flight via Bahrain. At the time, Bahrain was in the middle of a political uprising which had started the previous month, meaning that security concerns in the country were raised.

Exactly what happened to diplomatic bag AF24 is still unclear. The storage warehouse in Bahrain told FCO services they had never received it, but FCO Services claimed there was proof it had been loaded on to the flight. The bag could not be found anywhere.

An FCO incident report written later in the year commented: “There has been conflicting evidence that they either reached Bahrain and were stuck there for some time due to the unrest in the country at that time or that they had never left Kabul.”

But DHL said it was unsafe for their staff to conduct a full search in Bahrain because of the uprising. The delays meant that worldwide searches did not start until the following month, with still no update from Bahrain.

By May, the case had been escalated to DHL’s top levels of management and searches were taking place warehouses in Leipzig, London Heathrow and the East Midlands, as well further desperate checks in Kabul and Bahrain.

Records suggest that, throughout this time, neither the FCO or DHL had made any attempt to inform people that their DNA, bank details and medical records had gone missing. One official at the British Embassy in Kabul sent an email to colleagues to tell them a bag had been lost, but it seems that individuals weren’t approached until much later in the year.

Eventually, in August, the embassy filled in a personal data incident form and sent it to the FCO’s Information Management Department (IMD). It followed an email from the IMD telling the embassy: “We would like to monitor data incidents involving diplomatic bags more rigorously.”

But the delays in dealing with the loss meant that finding the postage senders was much more unlikely. An embassy official explained: “Due to the high turnover of staff it may be that some of the other senders have left post.” They added: “As it’s been six months since the bag was sent if they didn’t come back to my colleague [who had emailed embassy staff in March] then I doubt they would remember now.”

With the IMD putting pressure on the British Embassy in Afghanistan to cough up details about the data loss, more was revealed about the role of DHL in catalogue of errors. On 16 August an IMD email was drafted to the department’s head, clearly setting out the failures of the delivery company.

“I have asked FCOS [Foreign and Commonwealth Office Services] to raise the fact that the bag was flown to Bahrain during the civil disturbances there,” it said. “Had another route been used the bag may not have gone missing. Had DHL advised FCOS of non-receipt earlier, we could have asked BE [British Embassy} Bahrain to try and retrieve it from the airport.”

The questions were put to DHL the following day. FCO Services have since commented: “The choice of routing was a commercial decision made by the courier company. FCO Services have discussed relevant lessons with the contractor and we are satisfied they have been taken on board.”

But amidst the internal discussions, many of the people affected by the data loss remained unaware that their privacy had been compromised – and DHL was failing to apologise.

By August, one FCO employee who had found out her personal details had been lost wrote to the British Embassy to complain. She claimed that one of the missing parcels “contained all the invoices, detailed records of my travel package, including my credit card details, home address.” She said: “Had someone looked into the missing bag earlier (it was at least a 5 week gap and only as a result of me following up my own mail) it might have been located.”

It appears it was only at this stage, six months on, that the IMD thought of telling Immigration and Passport Services – a procedure that is meant to be done within 48 hours. An official wrote: “I will advise them [British Embassy, Kabul] to alert the IPS in case anyone might try to use the missing information to make a fraudulent application.”

But it wasn’t until September when the FCO finally all the people affected about their lost details. Confidential medical records of three staff members were amongst the lost items – thought to be Psychological Health Screening Questionnaires which are completed every three months. But the identities of the three individuals was not found out until 15 September, when a simple email to the FCO Healthline confirmed which forms were missing.

The next day, the embassy in Kabul received an email from the IMD. “We need to say something to reassure them in case they are concerned about the information falling into the wrong hands. The loss of such personal info may well cause anxiety in those affected. Do you… have any ideas about this?” A reply came back commenting: “the most sensible thing to do is to tell the people concerned.”

Bt while the FCO were scrambling to close the case of bag AF24, which was still listed on a ‘missing in transit’ file, delivery firm DHL were doing little to help the situation. One British Embassy official wrote in August: “Regarding an apology, we’ve had nothing from DHL Kabul.”

He said: “Ultimately the responsibility lay with DHL as from our point of view we’d followed the correct procedures. It would have been nice to have received something from DHL to forward on to the senders in the way of an apology but we’ve had nothing.”

By the end of October, the FCO was finally ready to close the case of the still-missing AF24 diplomatic bag. Then suddenly, on 2 November an email arrived, out of the blue.

“I have just heard this afternoon that a DHL lost and found depot in UK has Kabul AF24 in their possession… Once we confirm it is AF24 we can investigate with DHL UK and the lost and found warehouse where it has been for the last 9 months.”

An FCO spokesperson has now said the bag was “found undamaged, and there is no evidence to suggest that any personal data may have been compromised.”

The saga of AF24 was closed and neatly hushed up by the FCO. When enquiries about data losses were first made at the start of 2012, the FCO chose not to cough up any detail about the DNA debacle, instead listing it alongside other more minor losses in a few cells of a spreadsheet.

When asked for more details an official from the IMD emailed the FCO’s press office saying: “My feeling is that we should stick with the lines we have produced and agreed – there is enough info there and in the table itself,” adding that “none of the info was highly classified.”

The FCO Press Office emailed back. “We’re ok, hopefully on background we have talked them out of the story (or dulled it down, anyway).”

Note: Parts of this story were first mentioned in an article I did for the Bureau of Investigative Journalism about government data losses. 

Cost of St Paul’s protest eviction revealed by police

St Pauls occupy london eviction police cost

The Occupy London camp at St Paul's Cathedral. // Photo: KOREphotos

The police spent £103,981 removing peaceful protesters from St Paul’s Cathedral, a Freedom of Information Request has revealed.

The eviction, named Operation Hawley, saw 464 officers from the City of London Police break up the Occupy London camp on February 28.

Campaigners had been in the square outside the cathedral since October, but were evicted after a decision by the High Court not to allow an appeal.

London Mayor Boris Johnson said he supported the eviction because of the economic damage it was doing to the city.

He said: “I’m glad that finally the law has taken its course. My interest is in the economic interest of the city and I want to make sure the businesses in that area can flourish.”

With cuts being made to emergency policing, the £103,981 spent on Operation Hawley was clearly money well spent.

Top bosses cash in as Hackney’s famed privatised education authority prepares to end contract

Michael Gove visits Mossbourne Academy, Hackney - part of The Learning Trust

Michael Gove at Hackney's Mossbourne Academy // Photo: usembassylondon

In 2002, Hackney council became the first authority to be ordered to privatise its education services. Now, as the 10 year contract comes to a close, directors at The Learning Trust have pocketed huge pay increases – while dishing redundancies to their staff.

Bosses at The Learning Trust have seen their salaries rise by up to £74,269 since 2005, with the highest paid director now earning £217,102 a year.

But cuts at the education authority led to more than a hundred teachers and staff leaving their jobs last year after a series of redundancies. And 30 more jobs are set to be cut, including two primary school teacher posts, according to union sources.

One specialist primary school teacher, who works with gypsy children, has been told he will lose a day and a half from his working week. The change would cut his salary by about £20,000 a year.

Meanwhile, almost exactly the same sum of money was used to boost the total salary payments for Trust directors last year.

The National Union of Teachers is set to meet officials from The Learning Trust, but a source said it was their policy to strike when compulsory redundancies are made.

The private company, which is responsible for education in Hackney, is headed by Richard Hardie, Vice Chair of Swiss bank UBS. When the company transfers power back to the council this summer, directors will get to keep the high salaries they have awarded themselves because protection provided by employment laws – leaving the council to foot the bill.

Figures show that The Learning Trust paid out more than £600,000 to its directors last financial year.


Hackney council lost control over education management after it was branded the worst in the country back in 1997. The American-style school board system forced on to the borough by New Labour has overseen the setting up of the famed Mossbourne Academy in one of the most deprived areas of London. The school has been rated “outstanding” by Ofsted, with Education Secretary Michael Gove describing headteacher Michael Wilshaw a “hero”.

But the dramatic improvements have largely been credited to the new system and Wilshaw himself, rather than the removal of the old one that was failing to meet its statutory responsibilities. And, while press reports have tended to focus on the successes of Mossbourne, other schools in the area have seen standards slip.

Contrary to the efficiency of private companies Tory politicians speak of, The Learning Trust managed to spend more that £121m on “administrative expenses” in just one year. Financial details were outlined in the latest accounts published.

The company also manages to dodge transparency and accountability laws that public education authorities are subject to. Although Freedom of Information requests are accepted, the company is not obliged to comply with legislation, meaning that any complaints about transparency cannot be investigated by the Information Commissioner.

The authority has said: “The Learning Trust is not bound by the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act.  However as a body exercising public functions The Learning Trust is committed to doing so openly and transparently.  The Learning Trust has developed a policy which, so far as its constitution allows, complies with the provisions of the Act.”

Education services are set to be handed back to Hackney council in August as the 10 year contract comes to a close.


Update:  The Learning Trust have claimed that the term “administrative expenses”  is just an “accounting description”. A press officer said that it “covers all of our expenditure and so includes grant payments and government funds paid to school via the Trust.”

Let sleeping watchdogs lie

I wrote the following article for Private Eye (06/03/12).  You can view the full FOI disclosure of emails sent between Wintebourne View care and the CQC here (PDF, 3.53MB).

The correspondence also included a CQC-written report which chronologically summarises incidents at Winterbourne View prior to the Panorama documentary which exposed abuse in 2011. Here, it is published for the first time. You can read it here.  


Claims of ill-treatment and abuse, numerous police investigations and concerns over safeguarding at the Winterbourne View were reported to the failing Care Quality Commission (CQC) as far back as 2009 – it has emerged.

But the watchdog did nothing for nearly two years, until it was forced to act last May by a  BBC Panorama investigation showing patients with learning disabilities being verbally and physically being verbally and physically abused. The private hospital for adults with learning disabilities was then closed and 10 staff arrested.

The health and care regulator has consistently blamed the hospital for failing to notify it of serious incidents. But documents obtained by the Eye reveal that the CQC had been officially alerted to at least four separate allegations of staff abusing patients, which were also been reported to the police, dating back to October 2009. During the previous year the local authority had also informed CQC that there had been two unspecified safeguarding issues.

The first serious incident when police were called involved Ben Pullar, a patient who lost a tooth amid allegations that he was punched while he was being restrained. Although the local safeguarding board, run by South Gloucestershire Council, met with the patient’s family, no arrests were made.

The following year, police investigated at least three more allegations of abuse by staff. In February, a patient claimed she had been pushed and struck for not going to dinner with other patients. In July, a support worker reported witnessing a patient being slapped twice, once in the shower and once in her room. And in August 2010, another patient alleged her neck had been “squeezed” and she was having difficulty swallowing. That month CQC also received a notice from Castlebeck, which owns Winterbourne  View, that it had given a verbal warning to a support worker for “shouting and pulling a patient with some force”. Officers came to the home and took witness statements but made no arrests.

The number and frequency of reports and incidents should have alerted both the CQC and the local authority that something was wrong at Winterbourne. Tom Pullar, whose brother made allegations against staff at Winterbourne, told the Eye that the official account given by care workers of Ben’s injury was “unbelievable”. The report from the hospital sent to the CQC stated that while under restraint he “bit the alleged perpetrator on his hand. The alleged perpetrator pulled his hand out several times to free it and in the process a bottom incisor came out of the patient’s mouth.”

Mr Pullar says his brother was punched, and the investigation relied completely on the staff members’ evidence. He told us: “The CQC and the police were naïve to believe what people said without questioning it. It was one person’s word against a vulnerable person’s word.”

The documents, obtained by the Eye under the Freedom of Information Act, suggest there was at least one other attempt at whistleblowing which could not be revealed because the people involved expected them to remain confidential.

The CQC’s Director of Operations, Amanda Sherlock, said last year that the home “effectively misled us by not keeping us informed about incidents as required by the law. Had we been told about all these things, we could have taken action earlier.”

And even now, the organisation remains in denial, claiming that “the incident books weren’t available to us. We were not being given a full picture of what was going on. If a care home is not telling us what is going on, it’s very difficult for us to do our job.”

This neatly ignores the CQC’s responsibility to send in inspectors in and demanded the incidents books – as it did once the BBC investigation had done the job instead.

How Scotland Yard monitors prying bloggers and journalists

Photo credit - Metropolitan Police

'You MUST obtain approval from press office', Scotland Yard's Freedom of Information team ordered

Although the police were happy to turn a blind eye to phone hacking at the News of the World, they’re making a habit of keeping tabs on innocent journalists and bloggers.

When a Freedom of Information (FOI) request is made it is meant to be dealt with “applicant and motive blind”. But, Scotland Yard have a system in place where requests from journalists are flagged up. The ‘High Profile Request’ list is circulated to all internal departments in the police force, along with the full name of each requester.

The Met have admitted: “The list includes the applicant and if they are a known journalist that information is included”.

FOI staff are banned from releasing any information to journalists without getting express “approval” from the Met’s Press Bureau. It is unclear whether any disclosures have ever been denied because of pressure from the Bureau.

An email to staff  said: “You MUST obtain approval… before release if this request is from a journalist or identified as high risk.” It said that “high risk” FOI requests include “any request involving an identified member of the media.” It also includes requests from “VIP’s (MP’s etc)”.

Another email, sent in November, again reminded FOI officers of the policy. It said: “All High Profile FOIA requests – particularly those from journalists – continue to be of interest to DPA [Directorate of Public Affairs].” The message continued:  if “you feel a request is generating issues which could result in media coverage and you have not already been contacted by DPA please contact Ed Stearns, Chief Press Officer.”

In a phone conversation I had with Ed Stearns in November he defended this policy. “We’d have to be aware if something is likely to become high-profile,” he said. “I don’t think that would be unusual to have that sort of flagged up.”

But how far does the Met pursue its interest in journalists and bloggers? Three individuals, who have asked to remain anonymous, have told this blog that Scotland Yard informally “investigated” them after they asked questions to the force. In one case, the Police Central E-Crime Unit (PCeU) scrutinised articles written by a political blogger after he had  talked to a police officer about his work. He claimed he was never charged for a crime and says he “found out accidentally” about the (informal) investigation when an officer “confessed” to having personally investigated his website.  The PCeU said there had been no formal investigations into online media.

In my phone conversation with the Met’s Cheif Press Officer, Ed Stearns, I asked him whether the Met made a habit of investigating bloggers.

“Can you categorically say that it’s not regular practice of the Press Office to find out information about journalists?”  

Well, I mean… if… umm… it depends, it depends what – I mean obviously if a journalist has… I mean… In what way do you mean ‘find out information’?”

“I wouldn’t rule it out that we would search on something like Twitter or Google News.”

This is probably fair enough – it is a press office after all. But the question is, does this research into journalists and bloggers affect what information is disclosed – and how quickly? Is this one reason for the Met’s continual FOI delays? After all, “flagging” is one thing, but why does the press office need to give “approval”? What happens if the Press Office does not grant approval?

The Met have attempted to justify their policy on FOI, saying: “The process is not intended to hinder or delay the release of information but to ensure that we release consistent information and are properly prepared for any potential consequences of the release.”

The Information Commissioner’s Office, meanwhile, states: “The correct approach in considering requests for information and the application of the exemptions and exceptions should be on the basis that the application could have been made by anyone, anywhere in the world, for any (non vexatious) reason.”

10 ways to save money on FOIs – without changing the act

Freedom of Information under threat

FOI under threat // Photo: Mark van Laere

The Freedom of Information Act is currently being reviewed by the Justice Select Committee, which is likely to suggest changes to the law. One of the main criticisms of the act is that it is a “drain on resources”.

From my experience of using FOI, I don’t think the law needs changing at all. If the government want to spend less on FOI here’s ten ways they can do it without changing the law:


1.  Publish more
By far the best way to reduce time and resources spent on FOI is to simply make more information available online in the first place. Authorities are generally not compelled to publish most information they hold, so huge caches of data are withheld from the public , accessible only through FOI. Although making more information routinely available will never solve every would-be request, the effect on many organisations would be enormous. (So much money is spent on web development anyway – such as Norfolk Police who spent £250,000 redesigning their website – why not spend some of that uploading some actual content?)

2.   Make information more accessible
It’s in everyone’s interests for information to be in easy to find, read, search and use. A lot of places publish data in huge unsearchable PDF files, rather than searchable spreadsheets, so people are more likely to send in FOIs. Similarly, it’s not uncommon for organisations to print out FOI responses, scan them and email them as image files. This scanned response from a council is almost incomprehensible. If published data was more accessible there’d undoubtedly be fewer requests.

3.   Disclosure logs
When organisations disclose information under FOI, why are so many reluctant to keep this off their websites? Some places like Ofcom, keep a full disclosure log updated regularly. But most organisations don’t – and some, like the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, when asked to provide copies of past FOI disclosures, treat that as an FOI in itself!

4.   Provide data, don’t crunch pre-published data
Following on from the above, organisations can save resources by rejecting FOI requests if the information is already published, or is due to be published (this includes disclosure logs). It is not an FOI officer’s job to pull specific data from publicly-available documents, but this often happens regardless.

5.   Cut FOI bureaucracy
Some FOI officers send huge documents filled with legal mutterings and comments on the data. Others just send a short email. Why waste time and resources?

6.   Respond on time
The statutory deadline for FOI responses is continually neglected by authorities, wasting vast amounts of time and resources. For instance, in this particularly painful exchange the Charity Commission delayed their response by 16 months. As a result of bad practice, some 875 decision notices were issued by the Information Commissioner’s Office last year. Each one takes ages and involves piles of paperwork.

7.   Centralise data
A big obstacle for requesters comes when data is spread across hundreds of different institutions. For instance, to get a national picture relating to hospitals, police forces, councils, etc. it is often necessary to send bulk requests. If more data was centralised it would mean far fewer FOIs and would particularly help councils who receive the majority of requests.

8.   Stop treating informal requests as FOIs
Freedom of Information is a great thing, but lots of places now push all questions to their FOI team to be treated as “formal requests”. Press offices are far to keen to tell journalists “you’ll have to FOI that,” if the answers are not right in front of them. Even clarifications to FOIs are often treated as fresh requests, creating a whole stack more paperwork and bureaucracy. A greater willingness to answer questions and provide information would save time for everyone.

9.   Advise FOI requesters
Many organisations do not provide phone numbers for FOI officers and offer little advice not only on whether the information would be available under FOI, but also whether an FOI is needed at all.

10.   Cut links between FOI offices and press offices
FOI requests are meant to be dealt with anonymously, but it is common for authorities to coordinate FOI responses with press officers. Not only is this not in the spirit of the act, it also means more work for the organisation. (More on this dodgy practice soon.)

Of course, aside from all this, should we really be putting a price on transparency and accountability?

I’d suggest not.

Top cops pocket £70,000 in private healthcare

Photo credit - Metropolitan PoliceSenior police officers are being handed thousands of pounds of private healthcare by the Scotland Yard, a Freedom of Information request has revealed.

Top officers who are already paid up to £260,000 a year are given the medical premiums – but lower-ranking officers have to pay for them themselves.

The Met spend a total of £70,000 each year on the healthcare premiums, with an average spend of £1,000 per senior officer.

An explanation of the payments stated: “The policy is in place primarily to help ensure senior officers and staff receive prompt treatment for medical conditions which might otherwise impair their ability to do their job effectively.”

Clearly, the NHS is not good enough for London’s senior cops.

BBC fails to communicate with staff, top exec warned Director General


BBC director general Mark Thompson

BBC director general Mark Thompson // Photo: Frank Boyd

Mark Thompson, the director general of the BBC, was warned by a senior executive that communication with staff over pension changes was not good enough.

Strike action in 2010 saw broadcasts, including Radio 4’s Today programme, taken off air amid union disputes. Now, emails have been uncovered revealing that concerns over the way the BBC dealt with the situation were held at the most senior levels of the corporation.

An email sent to Thompson from Technology Chief Erik Huggers said: “for an organization who is renowned around the world for informing people, we do a poor job of that with our own staff.”

Thompson appears not to have replied to the email. The following year, Huggers left the BBC for a job in Silicon Valley.

Other emails sent to Mark Thompson, which have been released under the Freedom of Information Act, shine light on lengthy internal research on the salaries of senior executives. The results of one survey, which was sent to Thompson, said: “The absolute levels of salary that are being paid to top executives were deemed far too high.” It went on to say that the salaries of executives “seemed to inflame passions even more than talent costs.”

Three days later an email was circulated which was marked: “some useful facts on top pay”. The statistics appear to attempt to justify high pay in the BBC by noting that “over 25,000 people working in the public sector earn more than £100,000 a year.” The email ends with the suggestion that the statistics “might be useful for Press briefing”

Mark Thompson last month signaled that he would step down as the director general at the end of the year, or in early 2013. He took over the role in 2004, after the resignation of Greg Dyke over the Hutton Inquiry.


Email to BBC director general Mark Thompson from Erik Huggers

Email sent from BBC Technology Chief Erik Huggers to Mark Thompson (extract)


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