Freedom of Information news, Issue 05

06/04/2005
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  1. Commissioner to use information and decision notices cautiously
  2. NHS bosses tried to prohibit release of information under FOI
  3. One in five public sector IT managers struggle with FOI
  4. Manchester Evening News tests whether FOI works
  5. Information Commissioner happy with FOI performance

1. Commissioner to use information and decision notices cautiously

The Information Commissioner and the Department of Constitutional Affairs have agreed a set of rules for FOI compliance. The Memorandum of Understanding, published on 9th March, relates to applications to the Information Commissioner for a decision, and to Information Notices. It clarifies the powers of the Commissioner and responsibilities of Government Departments, and seeks to promote good practice.

Government departments are expected to provide all the information requested as soon as possible, or within 20 days at the latest. Any additional information requested by the Commissioner needs to be provided within 10 days.

The Commissioner will not normally serve an Information Notice on any Government Department unless he believes that relevant information is being withheld from him, or that there has been undue delay in providing the information requested. The Commissioner will not hold the information for longer than necessary, and will return or dispose of the information if necessary. Where the information is particularly sensitive, the Commissioner will inspect the information at the offices of the Government Department in question. Before serving a Decision Notice, the Commissioner may issue a preliminary Decision Notice, on which the Government Department in question can comment.

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2. NHS bosses tried to prohibit release of information under FOI

NHS leaders’ FOI guidance has been put under scrutiny by Computer Weekly, which obtained a memo suggesting a blanket ban on releasing information under the FOIA. The memo, prepared by the NHS national programme for IT (NPfIT), seeks to prevent NHS trusts from releasing details of contracts and other related documents such as “implementation plans, service performance measures and details of ongoing commercial discussions”. A spokesman for the NpfIT said that the memo was intended for guidance, not as an instruction.

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3. One in five public sector IT managers struggle with FOI

Public sector IT managers are having problems keeping up with the steep increase of legislation relating to their field. Over a fifth of public sector IT managers say that they are not aware, or have a sketchy knowledge, of the Freedom of Information Act. The survey, carried out by the computer firm, Dell, also reveals that only 8% of the government organisations interviewed felt they were fully aware of their compliance obligations and the penalties for not complying. The survey is based on more than 1,000 interviews that were conducted with IT managers in local and central government, healthcare and education sectors during January 2005.

4. Manchester Evening News tests whether FOI works

Manchester Evening News has been denied information it recently requested under the FOI legislation. Of the 15 FOI requests it made, only seven were replied to with full details. The other eight public bodies refused to provide the information, or provided it partially. The paper was able to obtain information about the MRSA “superbug” infection problem within Manchester hospitals, and about the plans for congestion charges. Some information was denied on the basis that it included personal data. The editor of the paper, Paul Horrocks said ”What we have learned that you have to be very specific in terms of dates and individual names. Newspapers also need to be wary of the over use of personal confidentiality excuses.”

5. Information Commissioner happy with FOI performance

Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner, has praised the new FOI regime indicating that the first months’ experiences have been good. Despite criticism of the Act being misused to obtain trivial information, Thomas said to the Guardian newspaper that he had been impressed by the wide range of information that has been made public, and that there were significant disclosures. “The act is already making a real difference in getting public access to previously secret official information. A lot of information is being disclosed. We are kick-starting a change in the culture of secrecy."
According to Thomas, his staff is now dealing with 285 complaints, the most prominent of which concerns the government's refusal to release the contents of the Attorney General's legal advice on the invasion of Iraq.

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For further details on the Privacy Laws & Business UK Newsletter, please click here.

Copyright Privacy Laws & Business 2005

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