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,

Martin

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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.

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.

£750m of unpaid tax written off by English councils

EXCLUSIVE

Unpaid taxes totalling more than £750m have been written off by local authorities over the last five years, figures have revealed.

Last year £147.7m of council tax was wiped from accounts in England, following a £168m write off the year before.

The figures, released by the Department for Communities and Local Government, included debt incurred from previous years which councils had given up chasing. Reasons for not collecting council taxes include absconding, bankruptcy and death where no assets exist.

Local Government Minister Grant Shapps said: “Every penny of council tax that isn’t collected means higher council tax for the law-abiding citizens who do pay up on time. It’s vital that councils do all they can to support their residents and by having efficient collection services, they are better placed to keep bills down for everyone.

“Of course councils should not be heavy-handed, should protect the vulnerable, and should use bailiffs as a last resort. Councils should instead look at ways to better improve collection rates and ensure better value for money for all taxpayers.”

Separate figures released last year in response to a parliamentary question named Manchester City Council as the local authority with the most unpaid taxes. More than £11m was owed to the council by the end of March 2010 with 9.1% of taxes unpaid.

Salford, Stoke-on-Trent, Bradford and several London boroughs were also in the top 10 of councils with the highest proportion of council tax due.

Councils that managed to collect the highest proportion of taxes included City of London and the Isles of Scilly where less than 1% of taxes was unpaid by 2010.

Iraq War minutes publication refused again

Key meetings leading up to the Iraq War remain secret after Cabinet Office reject FOI request // Photo: Benjamin Nolan

EXCLUSIVE

The Cabinet Office has refused for a second time to release the minutes of key meetings that led to the invasion of Iraq, nearly nine years ago.

A Freedom of Information (FOI) tribunal in 2009 ordered the cabinet minutes to be released as it said this was an exceptional case. But the publication was vetoed by the then Justice Secretary Jack Straw at the last minute, after a long battle with the Cabinet Office.

Now the FOI request has been rejected again by the Cabinet Office, despite the change of government and the age of the documents. The Cabinet Office claimed it was in the public interest to keep the information secret.

A letter claimed that the nine years since the invasion of Iraq was “not a long time”. It said that Cabinet’s collective responsibility relies on free discussion and must remain private.

But in the letter, which was sent last week, the Cabinet Office misguidedly assumed that the publication would set a precedent. It claimed: “The candour of all involved, and the records of meetings, would be affected by their assessment of whether the content of the discussions will be disclosed prematurely.”

But the information tribunal in 2009 stated that the “very unusual” nature of the case has “the effect of reducing any risk that this decision will set a precedent of such general application that Ministers would be justified in changing their future approach to the conduct or recording of Cabinet debate.”

The tribunal also pointed out that Cabinet minutes have always been a qualified, not an absolute, exemption from the Freedom of Information Act.

There were discrepancies also with the Cabinet Office’s latest justifications for withholding the documents, compared to its justifications in 2009.

In 2009, the Cabinet Office had argued that factors in favour of maintaining the exemption included:

  • “the decisions in question were fairly recent;”
  • “several of the ministers who took part in it remained in Government;”
  • “the Prime Minister was still in office”

But when the Cabinet Office refused again to publish the minutes last week, it claimed: “The change in government has not diminished the case for maintaining the convention of collective Cabinet responsibility.”

It added that there was a “strong public interest in the United Kingdom being able successfully to pursue our national interests, and to avoid causing unnecessary risk to the UK’s international relations.”

It said: “We are more likely to do so if we conform to the conventions of international behaviour, avoid giving offence to other nations and retain the trust of our international partners (all of which apply regardless of changes in administrations).”

The Cabinet Office is set to complete an internal review of its decision to refuse the publication. It is likely that this will also find the minutes exempt from release and the case will be taken to the Information Commissioner later this year.

All in it together: George Osborne’s family business reveals big losses

This blog post was also published as an article in the Guardian. 

For AccessDocs, I am also uploading the PDF files of Osborne & Little’s full accounts – here (2011) and here (2010). Please do get in touch if you spot anything interesting that I’ve missed! 

George Osborne’s family business has made a loss of nearly three-quarters of a million pounds, the third year in a row it has announced a deficit.

The upmarket fabrics and wallpaper company Osborne & Little, which is chaired by the chancellor’s father, Sir Peter Osborne, made a pre-tax loss of £739,000 in the last financial year. That followed a loss of £150,000 the year before, and a £7.5m loss in the preceding 12 months. George Osborne has a 15% stake in the family firm.

A series of cutbacks have been made by the firm since 2009, but financial losses have deepened.

The company has made workforce cutbacks, with £538,000 saved from salary payments over three years. However, the directors have only taken a small reduction and have kept their combined salaries at more than £1m. Political donations by the firm were axed in 2011, following a donation of £3,500 last year. Company pension contributions have also dropped, by £80,000 since 2010.

Losses have forced the company to increase its borrowing by almost £1m, bringing its net borrowing position to more than £2m. The latest accounts, published by Companies House, blame the financial losses on an increase in the cost of raw materials. The report said: “With overheads being maintained at prior year levels, the loss for the year was a direct consequence of the falling margins.”

The company, which was set up by Sir Peter Osborne and his brother-in-law Anthony Little in 1968, has a turnover of almost £23m. It says that 46% of its sales are made outside Britain, including 35% to continental Europe.

The chancellor’s mother, Lady Felicity Osborne, was appointed as a director of the firm last year, with her husband.

George Osborne has previously spoken proudly about the family business: “It’s been a part of my family for the whole of my life. I was always aware as a child when things were going well and when things weren’t going so well, so it’s given me a strong understanding of what’s involved in running a business – the risks, the hard work and the commitment.”

A company review of its finances said that tough economic times will continue: “Market conditions continue to be challenging in the current economic climate and there is little sign of this changing in the near future.” But it insisted: “The company is well placed to take advantage of any improvement in its principal markets and will continue to focus on cost control.” Osborne & Little were contacted but did not comment on its finances.

The financial losses are a further blow to the firm, which was reported to the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) this year over allegations of price fixing. A complaint was made to the regulator claiming that the firm had illegally blocked discounts for luxury products. It was also accused of trying to bully other company directors. The OFT refused to comment on the case but the allegations are believed to have now been dropped.