Contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0.
The coronavirus pandemic has prompted calls for the FOI Act to be relaxed and led some public authorities to announce that they will stop answering FOI requests. However, pressure for FOI time limits to be formally extended has been averted, probably by the Information Commissioner’s Office’s announcement that it will not penalise public authorities for failing to meet deadlines during the crisis. Deadlines under Scotland’s FOI Act, by contrast, have been substantially relaxed.
The Campaign has produced a briefing for MPs for the second reading of the Environment Bill in the House of Commons on 26th February 2020.
We are concerned at the restrictions on disclosure of information in the bill:
- The bill establishes the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) but contains broad prohibitions on the disclosure of information about some of the OEP’s functions. The Explanatory Notes say these prohibitions do not affect the public’s right to information under the Environmental Information Regulations (EIR) except in one specified way. However, nothing in the bill itself establishes that the prohibitions do not override the EIR right to information. The bill should be amended to ensure that the EIR right of access is not undermined.
- The bill would prohibit disclosure of information about OEP investigations into suspected failures by public authorities to comply with environmental law. The prohibition would only be lifted once the OEP decides to take no further action. However, the status of the information in question would be changed to allow a particular EIR exception that might not otherwise apply to be invoked. This would make it more likely that the information could be withheld under the EIR. That should not be necessary. Existing EIR exceptions protect information whose disclosure is shown to be harmful and not in the public interest.
- A prohibition would also apply to information which public bodies supply to the OEP to assist it with its functions. The information could only be disclosed with the consent of the body supplying it. If the prohibition on disclosure trumps the EIR right of access, this information could be withheld indefinitely, preventing public access to information about matters such as progress toward meeting environmental targets.
Read the full briefing.
The Campaign for Freedom has produced a briefing for second reading of the Health Service Safety Investigations Bill in the House of Lords on 29th October 2019.
We are concerned about a prohibition on the disclosure of information contained in the Bill. Under the bill, the Health Service Safety Investigations Body (HSSIB) would investigate selected NHS patient safety accidents or incidents and publish a report on each investigation. But it would be prohibited from making public any other information held in connection with its functions, except in limited circumstances. The prohibition would remove the right of access under the Freedom of Information Act and the right of individuals to see their own personal data under data protection legislation. Moreover, disclosure of protected information, other than in limited circumstances, would be an offence.
The prohibition is said to be necessary:
‘to create a ‘safe space’ within which participants can provide information for the purposes of an investigation in confidence and therefore feel able to speak openly and candidly with the HSSIB.’
If the purpose was to provide a safe space for participants it might be thought that what would be protected would be information likely to identify such a person, whether by name or position or indirectly from the content of what was said. In fact the prohibition on disclosure is not limited in this way.
It applies to any information held ‘in connection with’ the HSSIB’s function that is not already published, whether or not it relates to an identifiable individual, whether or not it relates to an identifiable investigation and whether or not it is capable of deterring participants from speaking frankly to investigators, inhibiting investigators in reaching their conclusions or causing any other adverse effect at all.
We think it is disproportionate and – given the substantial protection for sensitive information in the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act – unnecessary.
Read the full briefing.
40 leading environmental, open government and other organisations have signed a letter, which the Campaign for Freedom of Information co-ordinated, urging the government to drop a secrecy provision from draft legislation to improve environmental protection after Brexit. The organisations say the prohibition on disclosure “is wholly at odds with the public’s right to information” under existing UK legislation.
We welcome the introduction of a draft access to information strategy, particularly as recent ICO strategic documents such as the ‘Information Rights Strategic Plan 2017-2021’ and the ‘Regulatory Action Policy’ primarily reflect a data protection perspective even though they apply to the full range of the ICO’s functions including FOI. We are extremely pleased to see access to information now being dealt with in its own terms.
A new report by the Campaign for Freedom of Information reveals that some London councils are failing to comply with the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act’s time limits in as many as 40% of the requests they receive, causing long delays before information is released. On the other hand some are close to answering 100% of requests on time. The Information Commissioner (IC), who enforces the FOI Act, expects authorities to answer at least 90% of requests on time. The report finds that 25 out of 34 London councils surveyed fell short of this target in 2017/18. The scale of this problem had previously been obscured by the fact that many of the underperforming councils publish no statistics on their handling of requests.
The Information Commissioner’s Office has invited comments on a draft policy setting out its approach to taking action against those who have breached the legislation it enforces. The Campaign’s response states:
“Although the draft Regulatory Action Policy purports to address the ICO’s policy in relation to all the legislation it enforces, the focus on data protection, and nothing else, is overwhelming. The document gives the impression that all other issues, including freedom of information, have been squeezed off the ICO’s agenda altogether.
A Joint Committee of MPs and peers has been set up to consider the Draft Health Service Safety Investigations Bill. The bill establishes a new body called the Health Service Safety Investigations Body (HSSIB) to carry out investigations into safety concerns. It also makes provision for the HSSIB to accredit local NHS trusts to carry out their own investigations.
The Campaign is concerned by a prohibition on disclosure included in the draft bill. As it stands, the HSSIB and accredited NHS trusts would publish reports on their investigations into serious patient safety incidents. But they would be prohibited from making public any other information held in connection with the investigations. The prohibition would override the right of access under the Freedom of Information Act and – it is suggested – the subject access right under the Data Protection Act.
In a submission to the Committee, the Campaign says the reform would deprive the public of two important rights they have enjoyed for years.
Information about public services provided by contractors and fire risks at housing associations would be made subject the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act under a private member’s bill introduced by Andy Slaughter the Hammersmith MP. His Freedom of Information (Extension) Bill is to be due for second reading debate in the Commons this Friday, June 15 2018.
At present, information held by contractors delivering public services is only available under FOI if the contract entitles the public authority concerned to that information from the contractor. If the contract is silent, the public has no right to it.
The bill, drafted by the Campaign for Freedom of Information, would bring all contractor-held information about the performance of the contract within the Act’s scope. It could be obtained by a request to the public authority, subject to the Act’s exemptions.
The Campaign has responded to the Cabinet Office’s consultation on a draft revised code of practice under section 45 of the Freedom of Information Act. The revised code would replace the current one that was issued in November 2004, shortly before the Act came fully into force.
Although the draft revised code is said to provide guidance on ‘best practice’ under the Act we think it needs to go significantly further to justify that description. As it stands the proposed code:
- does not fully reflect changes in the interpretation of the Act resulting from Upper Tribunal and court decisions
- describes as ‘best practice’ some measures which are required under the Act, implying that these statutory requirements are optional
- fails to properly explain the advice that should be provided when requests exceed the cost limit and how the Act’s provisions on vexatious requests should operate
- is weaker in key respects that the 2004 version of the code it is intended to replace, omitting numerous helpful passages from it. The effect is to limit rather than extend the spread of good practice.
In the Campaign’s view the new code should be substantially improved before it is introduced.