PL&B FOI E-news, Issue 42

1. OGC publishes Gateway Reviews on ID card scheme

The Office of Government Commerce (OGC) published, on 19 March, two Gateway reviews into the ID cards programme following a decision made by the Information Tribunal on the 19th February. The release of documents stems from a FOI request made in 2005 (PL&B UK July 2007 pp.14-15).

A statement from the OGC said: “Reviews are conducted on a confidential basis and this confidentiality allows interviewees to speak frankly and openly to reviewers about any problems facing the project or programme. It is felt that general disclosure of key Gateway information would undermine its effectiveness, and the Ministry of Justice's Working Assumption looks to balance the interests of transparency with safeguarding the integrity of the process. However, OGC accepts the Information Tribunal's decision that the exceptional nature of the public interest in the ID cards programme, combined with the age of the reports in question, is such that these specific reports should be disclosed, without affecting the Ministry of Justice's Working Assumption which will continue to govern OGC's approach to the disclosure of Gateway Reports under FOI.”

Speaking about the disclosure Nigel Smith, chief executive of the OGC said:

"The Information Tribunal has concluded that neither they nor the Information Commissioner believe all Gateway reviews should be disclosed. OGC's approach to FOI will continue to aim to safeguard the interests of transparency whilst maintaining the integrity of the Gateway process. Our commitment to transparency and public accountability is evident in the emphasis we have placed on publishing the results of a wide range of OGC activities, such as the Procurement Capability Reviews and delivery plans on sustainable procurement and operations on the Government estate.”

2. Department of Health receives practice recommendation on records management practice

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has issued a formal practice recommendation to the Department of Health regarding its records management practice. This follows a request by the ICO, and with the agreement of the Department, for the National Archives (TNA) to conduct an assessment of records management practice at the authority.

The Information Commissioner’s Office is seeking significant improvements in the way the Department manages and retains its records in the future. The recommendation concludes that senior managers must do more to ensure that good behaviours and practices are reinforced, especially in the face of organisational changes.

The Assistant Information Commissioner, Gerrard Tracey, said:

“This is the second practice recommendation the ICO has issued to the Department of Health for failing to meet its requirements under the Freedom of Information Act. In April 2008, the Department was served a practice recommendation in relation to its handling of FOI requests.

The Information Commissioner recognises that the Department is already working to improve its records management practices and welcomes this approach. The ICO will continue to monitor the Department’s request handling and records management functions and with the support of TNA, will be assessing its progress against the recommendations.”

See a copy of the Practice Recommendation.

3. ICO helps public authorities fulfil their duty to deal with round robin requests

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) is reminding public authorities of their duty to respond to requests for information under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and Environmental Information Regulations (EIR), even if they are part of a round robin system of requests.

New guidance provides straightforward advice on what to do when a written questionnaire is received, including:

  • identifying which questions are requests,
  • what advice or assistance to give, and
  • how to respond to address requests circulated to a number of public authorities.

Round robin or circular requests usually take the form of a questionnaire and have often been used to identify trends between public authorities. Common themes include costs, contracting arrangements, staff recruitment and the names of contacts at an authority.

4. Grants awarded to study impact of FOI on local government and Parliament

The Constitution Unit has been awarded a research grant by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) to study the impact of FOI on local government in England, and on Parliament. In terms of the parliamentary process, the Constitution Unit will look at how MPs and peers have begun to see the benefits of using the FOI Act, and on the other hand, how Parliament as an institution is attempting to ‘shield’ itself from FOI, and struggling to come to terms with a series of adverse rulings by the Information Commissioner.

On the local government side, the Unit will conduct the first systematic study of the objectives, benefits, and consequences of FOI upon local government. The study will address two main research questions – first, whether the objectives of the UK FOI Act are being achieved at local level; and second, how FOI has affected the working of local government.

5. Salary scales of senior staff to be published, ICO says

Senior public officials’ salary bands should be publicly available as a matter of routine, according to new Guidance published on 23 February by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).

The ICO Guidance, When should salaries be disclosed?, explains that salary details, bonuses and performance related pay should be in the public domain to the nearest £5,000 band when there is a legitimate public interest. Disclosing exact salaries will only be required in exceptional circumstances.

The ICO says that staff responsible for major policy and financial initiatives can expect greater scrutiny of their pay than more junior employees.

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Copyright Privacy Laws & Business 2009