PL&B FOI E-news, Issue 32

1. Jack Straw confirms FOI extension to private sector

Speaking at the House of Commons on 29 January, Jack Straw, Secretary of State for Justice, told MPs that the Government believes that the FOI Act should be extended to the private sector.

Straw said: ‘The Freedom of Information Act 2000 has now been in force for three years and appears to be working well, although we keep it under continuous review. We are not proceeding with amendments to the fees regulation. However, we are consulting on whether to extend FOI coverage to a range of organisations that are in the private sector, but carry out public functions…’

‘As the boundary between the public and private sectors for the delivery of what are essentially public services has moved, so we believe that the arrangements should move as well. That is why we are consulting on the matter,’ Straw added.

In its response to the Ministry of Justice’s consultation on the extension of FOI to the private sector, PL&B stressed that there are several organisations and categories of organisations that appear to be natural candidates for early designation because of the public functions they perform. When determining whether FOI should extend to contractors who provide services under contract with a public authority whose provision is a function of that authority, concerns about duplication of FOI compliance effort and increased costs should be addressed.

 The Ministry of Justice consultation closed on 1st February.

2. FOI appeal case to shed light on ‘personal data’ concept

A Scottish FOI case, which has been appealed to the House of Lords, may have implications on the ‘personal data’ concept. The case, which is scheduled for 1st and 2nd April 2008, concerns a FOI request for the release of childhood leukaemia statistics.

The Scottish Information Commissioner upheld an appeal in August 2005 against the Common Services Agency for the Scottish Health Service (CSA) over its decision to withhold childhood leukemia statistics for Dumfries and Galloway. The Commissioner found that whilst the CSA was entitled to ensure that personal health information was protected from public disclosure, nevertheless it was wrong not to provide any information.

In December 2006, the Court of Session upheld the Commissioner’s view that whilst raw data should not be released, the information could be provided in a form which would not risk patient identification.

Moreover, the Court supported the Commissioner in his view that the statistics on patients’ age range (0-14), census ward and year of diagnosis related to census wards and not to individuals. The information minimised the risk of identification of any individual child. It was no longer "biographical in a significant sense", especially as the focus had moved away from the individual children to the incidence of disease in particular wards in particular years. The information was therefore not personal data.

The Commissioner’s decision can be seen here

The Court of Session Decision can be seen here.

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