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Archives for open government code

Health Department challenged over “absurd” hospital consultant secrecy

The Campaign challenged the Department of Health’s refusal to say how many consultants work in hospital departments. The Department had claimed that it would be breaking the Data Protection Act (DPA) by releasing the precise figures.

The Department has now agreed that the DPA does not prevent them from releasing the information and indicated it had revised its policy on this matter before receiving the Campaign’s letter.

Government “puts two fingers up to openness code and Ombudsman”

A report by the Parliamentary Ombudsman published today (July 10) reveals that the government has:

  • refused to comply with part of the Ombudsman’s recommendation that the government release details of gifts given to ministers
  • issued a certificate preventing the Ombudsman seeing papers of cabinet committees dealing with the passage of the Human Rights Act
  • issued another certificate blocking disclosure of information about ministerial conflicts of interest on the grounds that it would be “contrary to the public interest”

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Challenge to secrecy over private sector staff in Whitehall

NOTE: The Code of Practice on Access to Govenment Information was introduced by the Conservative Government in April 1994 as an alternative to a freedom of information act. The Code has now been superseded by the Freedom of Information Act 2000 which came fully into force on 1 January 2005. An archived version of the Code is available on the The National Archives website here.

Introduction

Should officials’ names be kept secret in order to protect their privacy? Is it an invasion of privacy to reveal which public servant wrote a report, which official took a decision or which “civil servant” is actually employed by a private company and temporarily seconded to work in government? The Campaign doesn’t think so – and has successfully challenged the government departments who do. The process has involved a mountain of correspondence – and taken nearly three years.

Under the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA) any information about an identifiable individual is “personal data” and can only be disclosed if certain conditions are met. This means that there is no blanket prohibition on the release of such information. However, some public authorities have adopted a simplistic approach which assumes that anything which identifies an individual – even civil servants’ names – cannot be disclosed at all, or can only be disclosed with the individual’s explicit consent. This policy could allow officials to block any disclosure which identified them, even where there is no genuine issue of privacy.

The potential problems can be seen from the government’s response to requests for information about private sector employees who have been seconded to work for government departments.

Secondees continue to be paid by their private employers, but act as civil servants, returning to their original employers once the secondment is over. This may raise questions about possible conflicts of interest. Do seconded staff work on policies or regulatory decisions affecting their companies? Do they gain unfair advantage in securing contracts? Openness about their secondment is at least part of the answer.

Using the open government code, the Campaign asked government departments for the names of seconded staff, the organisations from which they had come and to explain the work they do for the department.

The DTI initially responded by refusing to identify any of its secondees. It claimed that for data protection and privacy reasons it could not name individuals without their consent, and that the work involved in asking for consent would be an unreasonable diversion of its resources. The Campaign challenged this refusal under the code, arguing it would not be unreasonable to seek consent, and that in any case the department was legally entitled to disclose the information without consent.

This led the DTI to reconsider its approach. It decided to ask secondees for permission to publish their details. After a long delay it told us that all 112 staff seconded during the past three years had agreed to be identified and published the names. Stephen Byers, the then Trade & Industry Secretary, told the Campaign that this information would be published annually in future.

In response to a similar request, the Treasury initially released the names of staff who had agreed to be identified – only 7 out of 15 seconded staff. It refused to identify the other 8, claiming that without their consent it was prohibited from doing so by the Data Protection Act (DPA). The Campaign also challenged this decision. We pointed out that at least one of the 8 staff had been publicly identified by his employer already, and in any case the DPA did not prohibit disclosure of this information without consent. We set out our reasons for this in a detailed letter.

The Treasury reviewed its original decision, and after some delay agreed with the Campaign that it was able to identify secondees – regardless of whether they had given their consent. This decision, based on the Treasury’s own legal advice, sets an important precedent for disclosure of such information.

The Cabinet Office initially refused to disclose the names of any secondees. When the Campaign challenged this decision it introduced a new policy of identifying those secondees who had agreed to the release of their names. The Campaign challenged this policy too, and the Cabinet Office finally adopted a new policy of identifying all secondees, regardless of their consent, except where the individual could show that publicity would harm them in some way. In February 2003, the Cabinet Office issued guidance along these lines to all Whitehall departments.

The correspondence with the DTI lasted over a 12 month period; that with the Foreign Office took 7 months while the Cabinet Office correspondence has so far taken 14 months. Overall, it has taken 3 years to establish this simple but important point, as department after department raised the same, unjustified, objections to disclosure – a testament to Whitehall’s pathologically cautious approach to freedom of information. You can read the correspondence by following the links below.

-> Department of Trade & Industry correspondence
-> Treasury correspondence
-> Department of Transport, Environment & the Regions correspondence
-> Cabinet Office correspondence
-> Foreign & Commonwealth Office correspondence

Broken commitments on access to health records

NOTE: The Code of Practice on Access to Govenment Information was introduced by the Conservative Government in April 1994 as an alternative to a freedom of information act. The Code has now been superseded by the Freedom of Information Act 2000 which came fully into force on 1 January 2005. An archived version of the Code is available on the The National Archives website here.

The Department of Health has agreed to publish the previously secret papers of a group advising ministers about the fees charged to patients asking to see their health records, following a challenge by the Campaign.
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Double blow to freedom of information

The government today delivered a double blow to freedom information. The 4 year delay in implementing the Freedom of Information Act, which the Lord Chancellor announced today was condemned as “totally unjustifiable” by the Campaign for Freedom of Information. The Campaign was also deeply critical of ministers’ decision to refuse to comply with an open government ruling by the Parliamentary Ombudsman, also announced today – the first time this has ever happened since the code’s introduction in 1994.

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“Minimal” amendments do little to improve flawed information bill

Ministers have rejected calls to improve the Freedom of Information Bill, and are proposing only a handful of minor changes for the bill’s repeatedly delayed committee stage in the House of Lords. The limited nature of the government’s amendments, published today, were criticised by the Campaign for Freedom of Information.

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“Deeply flawed” Freedom of Information Bill must be improved

The government’s Freedom of Information (FOI) proposals are still “deeply flawed and would allow ministers to suppress embarrassing information”, according to the Campaign for Freedom of Information.

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“Substantial defects” remain in Freedom of Information proposals

There will still be “substantial defects” in the government’s Freedom of Information proposals, despite the changes announced by the Home Secretary today, according to the Campaign for Freedom of Information . The changes themselves are welcome and would remove a number of obstacles to openness, the Campaign said. “But they do not go far enough and leave serious flaws at the heart of the measure”.

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“Deeply disappointing” information bill “weaker than Conservatives’ openness code”

The Campaign for Freedom of Information said it was deeply disappointed by the government’s draft Freedom of Information (FoI) bill published today. [1]  “This is not just a major retreat from the government’s own white paper. In key areas the bill is weaker than the openness code introduced by the Conservatives” it said.

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Lord Chancellor presents 1997 Freedom of Information Awards

Individuals who have blown the whistle on dangers to the public and public bodies which have voluntarily released normally confidential information are amongst those recognised in the Campaign for Freedom of Information’s annual Awards.

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