Freedom of Information news, Issue 09
- Information Tribunal overturns ICO’s decision in its first FoI case
- Awareness of FoIA still low
- Scotland to review its FoIA
- Local councils spend an average of 14 hours per FoI request
- NHS to take Scottish FoI Commissioner to court
- Companies use FoI increasingly to obtain contract details
- FoI practitioners seek guidance on balancing public and other interests
- Regional paper drops FoI case in fear of creating a precedent
1. Information Tribunal overturns ICO’s decision in its first FoI case
The Information Tribunal decided, on 9th November 2005, to substitute a new Decision Notice in a case concerning an FoI request to the Inland Revenue for information about delays in tax refunds. Mr Barber, the appellant, had, in February 2005, requested the Inland Revenue to declare how it had dealt with examples that he described as “maladministration” or “failed standards”. The Information Commissioner (ICO) upheld the Inland Revenue’s view of not holding the information requested. The Tribunal points out that under FoIA, there is no definition of a valid request, and finds that Mr Barber had made a genuine request.
The full text of the decision is available at www.informationtribunal.gov.uk. There are two further judgments already posted on the website.
2. Awareness of FoIA still low
Only 5% of those interviewed for the Information Commissioner’s Annual Track Research could, unprompted, name the Freedom of Information Act. When prompted, 56% were aware of the Act, compared with 48% in 2003.
The research is based on interviews with 1,000 people. For more information, see www.ico.gov.uk (press releases).
3. Scotland to review its FoIA
Nine months since its inception, the Scottish Government has decided to review the operation of its FoI Act. While the feedback has generally been positive, and two thirds of the Scottish people are aware of the legislation, the Government is keen to consult both public authorities and individuals.
For more information, see www.scotland.gov.uk/News/Releases
4. Local councils spend an average of 14 hours per FoI request
The majority of local councils do not charge anything for replying to FoI requests, even though they spend nearly two working days per request. This is mainly because the cost of charging is regarded as disproportionate. In the first six months of the FoI regime, district councils received, on average, around 15 requests, whereas larger councils received around 150. The biggest problem in compliance was applying the exemptions, especially the public interest test.
The study, commissioned by the Improvement and Development Agency, was carried out by the Constitution Unit of University College London. For the full report, visit www.idea-knowledge.gov.uk.
5. NHS to take Scottish FoI Commissioner to court
The National Health Service is to take the Scottish Information Commissioner to court over the release of leukaemia statistics, reports the Sunday Herald.
The Commissioner, Kevin Dunion, upheld a FoI appeal earlier in the year which sought the publication of statistics of childhood leukaemia in every Census ward in Dumfries and Galloway from 1990 to 2003. The NHS Common Services Agency (CSA) had refused to release the records, and is now taking the Commissioner to court on the basis of protecting patient confidentiality. This is the first time that the Scottish FoI legislation will be tested in court.
For more information, see www.itspublicknowledge.info, www.sundayherald.com.
6. Companies use FoI increasingly to obtain contract details
Companies are becoming more active in making FoI requests to get detailed information about contracts. UK subsidiaries of US owned companies have, in particular, become aware of this potential to gain access to bidding information. The US has had a similar law for the last 40 years, and there, it is commonplace to use the FOI Act to gain commercial knowledge.
However, some UK public sector organisations such as the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital NHS Trust have chosen to publish both the requests and the responses in their disclosure logs in order to stop companies from benefiting commercially from the Freedom of Information Act (See PL&B UK May/June 2005, p.19).
7. FoI practitioners seek guidance on balancing public and other interests
A survey carried out by University College London’s Constitution Unit reveals that FoI practitioners are mainly concerned about how to balance public, and other, interests. Of the survey respondents, 60% would like to see more guidance being published on this topic.
The management and use of public funds had generated most requests. While individuals were the largest group of requesters, journalists were not far behind.
The survey was designed and distributed by the Constitution Unit, and was published on 2nd September 2005 on the Constitution Unit’s website www.ucl.ac.uk/constitution-unit.
8. Regional paper drops FoI case in fear of creating a precedent
The Editor of a regional newspaper has withdrawn its FoI complaint after the Office of the Information Commissioner indicated that they were considering dismissing it. The Newark Advertiser sought information about bids submitted to the local council for the development of a large area in the town centre. The Newark and Sherwood District Council rejected the paper’s FoI request claiming that making the details public would harm the commercial interests of the council and other landowners. The Information Commissioner’s office told the council to reconsider the application under the Environmental Information Regulations, but this was not successful either. The Information Commissioner’s office then informally told the Newark Advertiser that it was thinking about rejecting the complaint, and invited further representations. The newspaper, however, decided not to pursue the case in fear of creating a precedent.
The full report can be found at www.holdthefrontpage.co.uk.
Copyright Privacy Laws & Business 2005