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.

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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.

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.

Exclusive: Metropolitan Police “deleted” phone-hacking emails

Hayman & Fedorcio at the Home Affairs Select Committee

The Metropolitan Police have “deleted” thousands of emails that may be central to the phone-hacking scandal.

Requests were made in June for the disclosure of emails sent in 2006 by Andy Hayman and Dick Federico, who have both given evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee.  The requests asked for copies of correspondence between the two men, as well as between Hayman and News International.

But letters sent to AccessDocs have now revealed that the Met deliberately did not keep back ups of any of these emails. The Met said: “the information you have requested is not held by the MPS. Emails over three years old can not be retrieved as back ups are not held.”

When questioned about this policy, the Met took five weeks to provide an answer. Finally, in a letter sent today, the failure to keep email back-ups has been blamed on “cost management”. It explains that, although a form of back-ups are made, they are almost impossible to access – making it impossible for individual emails to be unearthed and examined in connection with phone-hacking.

The letter explains: “This is not a documented policy, it is a configuration setting for our backup software. For cost management reasons back up data is only held for a period of three years.”

“The back-ups referred to are the Exchange database back-ups which are retained for business continuity purposes on tapes – they are not directly searchable for individual e-mails. They are used to restore entire email accounts and take 7 hours. Finding specific emails in the account would then require an additional search would take 16 hours per month restored. Searching for specific key words in emails or for emails from certain named individuals would be in addition to the 23 hours. Therefore this is not something that could be completed within the time constraints of the Freedom of Information Act legislation.”

The letter also stated that “Emails that relate to a specific offence / investigation are captured and recorded on the relevant crime recording information systems.” This, however, does not seem to allow for the possibility that police officers themselves may be involved in criminal activity and cover-ups which might need investigating afterwards.

The documents:

View FOI rejection responses here.

View the MPS’s answers to questions about email back-up policies here.

See also on AccessDocs:

Metropolitan Police withheld dozens of sensitive documents

Andy Hayman’s drinking habits

Metropolitan Police withheld dozens of sensitive documents

A document released by the Metropolitan Police, under the Freedom of Information Act (FOI), has revealed dozens of other FOI disclosures that the police illegally withheld from publication. Many of the disclosures could have been potentially damaging for the Met.

Under FOI laws, responses to information requests should be released within 20 working days. This document lists disclosures that missed the deadline.

The requests which the Metropolitan Police have breached the FOI Act over have included:

  • “Copy of guidence given to police officers relating to the student protest on 24 November 2010”
  • “Guidence issued to police officers relating to the student protest on Thursday 9th December”
  • “Questions as to whether Plain Clothes Police Officers were deployed at all Student Demonstrations in 2010”
  • “Papers relating to student riot at Millbank 10/11/2010”
  • “Plain Clothes Police Officers present at 2009 G20 Protests”
  • “Question in relation to MET investigation into wrongful telephone interceptions by News International”

The Met refused to comment on the delay of the disclosures, but said that the “vast majority” of information releases are published on time. A spokesman for the police force said: “Due to the complexity of some requests, they take longer to complete.”

So what happened with these withheld disclosures? In most cases, responses were eventually sent to the people who had requested information, after a very long wait. It seems that, in most cases, the requests only received a ‘partial disclosure’. The Met said: “There is no system in place to prioritise requests.  Requests are dealt with in the order they are received and on a strict case-by-case basis.” However, they admitted that “requests of a more “sensitive” nature will obviously take a longer time to process than those which are more straight forward.”

But the real issue here is not a conspiracy, but is to do with open access to public information about potentially important or controversial things. The Metropolitan Police only spends between £406,055 and £487,153 per annum on all of its staff for any FOI-related role in their Public Access Office. Maybe more staff are needed. Maybe they need to improve their information collation system. Or maybe they should just save everyone some time by publishing more documents online voluntarily.

View the document here:

http://www.met.police.uk/foi/pdfs/disclosure_2011/march/2011030001047.pdf

View the full online Metropolitan Police FOI disclosure log here:

http://www.met.police.uk/foi/disclosure/disclosure_log.htm