PL&B FOI E-news, Issue 49
1. Tribunal orders release of sensitive data in DP/FOI interface decision
A recent decision by the Information Tribunal on disclosing sensitive personal data, in this case abortion data, states that disclosure would not contravene the Data Protection Principles or breach the Abortion Regulations 1991. FOI exemptions, section 40 and 44, thus do not apply.
The Department of Health had refused to disclose the disputed information, which was statistics about late abortion.
The Tribunal ruled: ‘We have considered this case based on the relevant facts and circumstances, and we would not wish this decision to be considered a general bar to withholding statistical information from public disclosure on grounds of protection of personal data. There may be cases where data subjects may be identified or reasonably identifiable from statistics, where different factors and circumstances may determine whether disclosure is unfair or unwarranted. Where statistics can be added to other information held by a public authority to identify an individual, consideration must in each case be given to the Data Protection Principles as required by Section 40(3) FOIA.
The decision of 15 October can be seen at http://www.informationtribunal.gov.uk/DBFiles/Decision/i344/DOH%20v%20IC%20and%20PLA%20(EA-2008-0074)%20Decision%2015-10-09%20(w).pdf
The next issue of PL&B UK will report on recent decisions by the Information Tribunal on the disclosure of sensitive personal data.
2. ICO again criticised for long delays
The Information Tribunal has criticised the Information Commissioner’s office for the long delays in investigating FOI cases.
Referring to a complaint, which took the ICO 20 months to even start to investigate ((EA/2009/0021), the Tribunal said: ‘Concerns have been raised by differently constituted Panels of this Tribunal that such inordinate delays seriously undermine the operation of FOIA. While we are not in a position to identify the cause, or causes, of the delay in this case, we consider that it was excessive and cannot properly be justified by the Commissioner. The delay has meant that this Appeal was not heard until four years after the request for information was made and the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) has still not received the information that we consider it is entitled to. There do not appear to be any effective methods by which CAAT, or any other Requestor, could challenge the delay by the Commissioner and force him to act in a timely manner. This completely and unacceptably undermines the spirit of FOIA and the general right of public access to information held by public authorities.’
In July, two Parliamentary questions on the subject were put to The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Bach). He then said that ‘the Ministry of Justice and the Information Commissioner regularly review the resources required … For this financial year, the Government have identified additional funding of £500,000 for the Information Commissioner's Office's freedom of information work, over and above the baseline funding of £5 million.
The Campaign for the Freedom of Information has also repeatedly criticised the delays, and last summer published a detailed report including supporting evidence.
3. ICO publishes details of caseload
The Information Commissioner’s Office has published a log of FOI and Environmental Information Regulations cases that have been under consideration by the ICO for 30 days or more and are currently open. The document, which is a snapshot at September 2009, also includes short summaries to describe the nature of the information requested.
The ICO says that no decisions have been reached on these complaints. ‘As the snapshot demonstrates, cases that take longer than 30 days tend to involve contested information of a more complex nature.’
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