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.

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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

EXCLUSIVE

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)

 

£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.

Top 100 most complained about shows, 2011: The full list

I wrote a piece for today’s Guardian about the top 100 most complained about TV and radio shows of the year.

Now, here’s the full list…