back to article Beware Freedom of Info law 'privacy folktale' - ICO chief

Is Blighty's Freedom of Information (FOI) law working? The civil servant leading the agency charged with enforcing it thinks so, and says a review by politicians shouldn't succumb to myths about the supposed dangers of more openness by the State. UK Information Commissioner Christopher Graham has called for "careful analysis …


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  1. Miek

    " because governments need the guarantee of privacy to conduct their business;"

    -- Bollocks, they just don't want those pesky members of public interfering in their backhand business deals and their rinsing the public purse.

    1. Sir Runcible Spoon


      If they (the Gov) have nothing to hide, they have nothing to fear.

      But of course they do, so they are scared shitless.

  2. Neil B

    FOI is an Act with good intentions, but in a world where the flimsiest sound-bite from any back-bencher can be cut, distorted, and plastered on the front page of tabloids whose primary goal is anything *but* the good health of our democracy, I have to risk an avalanche of down-votes and agree with Blair on this. Ministers and civil servants aren't robots from which decisions emerge, fully formed, from some hatch in their navel. Good policy grows from lively, uninhibited debate. FOI curtails that debate.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      @ Neil B

      Surely that's missing the point somewhat. I agree that real debate should be the backbone for any policy making but that doesn't mean that it should be conducted behing an impenetrable wall because of a fear of it being taken out of context. As the individuals involved are there specifically because they have been chosen to represent our voices in that debate, it is irresponsible for us not to know what they are saying on our behalf. If the problem is the possible distortion of the facts, that is what should be addressed, not the symptom.

      1. Neil B

        @ AC

        I don't disagree with anything you've said. The question is whether, on balance, FOI does more good than harm to our democracy. I have little faith that it does.

    2. Fenwick

      So are you saying that the problem is not FOI it's people with an agenda twisting someone's words? If so I suggest we solve that problem instead.

      Since I start with the assumption that anything I do at work (for the public sector) will at some point in the not too distant future be made public, I find myself trying just a bit harder to do the right thing. Also I spend less time doing things that I would not like to be made public.

    3. Anonymous Coward

      The public need to see the debate.

      The point of the FOIA is to make the debate public.

      You aim to make "one thing in private, another in public" impossible, by minimising the stuff that is kept private. Small scale discussions still happen in private (we don't record everything advisers says in the corridor to ministers, etc), and there are exceptions in the legislation on military,

      diplomatic matters (but strictly limited).

      But co-ordinating big lies becomes too difficult. e.g. telling voters "We're abolishing trident" vs in private "Don't worry, we're keeping it, really" becomes tricky when describing to thousands of civil servants whats going on: if we're abolishing trident, whats this budget item? do we really need all that accomodation for sailors from 2014 onwards, etc. ...

      1. Tom 13

        No, the public need to see a full debate,

        which is not necessarily the same thing as seeing all the pre-debate work and strategies discussed before a full debate occurs in public. And the public debate needs to be a real debate, not some Way Off Broadway stage show. They public also has the right to know who has been involved in the discussions about the pre-debate work, although not necessarily what was said. I for one (if I were in such a position) would be reluctant to give my honest and unvarnished opinion on certain aspects of policies because even though they are factual, in the current environment of PR hangings of non-protected classes I'd be a corpse.

    4. Loyal Commenter Silver badge

      @Neil B

      So the problem lies with the gutter press, not the FOIA. Maybe the solution is not to cripple the FOIA but to impose proper penalties on the press when they publish lies, such as retractions with the same impact as the original articles - if they put something out of context in 72pt lettering on the front page, which is then shown to be a bag of sensationalist lies, they should be compelled to put a correction, in the same point size, on the same page, at the earliest opportunity, and make sure that retraction is available to everyone who bought the original issue. If this causes them to go bankrupt, so be it. The media have massive influence over the populace, and therefore over politicians, and they should be held completely accountable for their publications.

      1. Tom 13

        The gutter press doesn't survive without

        a gutter public to support it.

    5. Graham Marsden
      Thumb Down

      @Neil B

      "Good policy grows from lively, uninhibited debate"

      Which is a really great idea. Except people like Blair consider that "Good policy grows from everyone doing what *I* say" so the idea that the plebs find out that those who they elected to *represent* them in Parliament are being brow-beaten and having their arms twisted to support "Government Policy" is anathema to him.

    6. squizzar

      Aren't the debates supposed to be public?

      Like the houses of parliament? Why would it be such a disaster to have people's thought process laid bare? Yes the press would have a field day, but once everyone cottoned on to their terrible SNR they'd have to tighten up their sensationalism anyway.

      The problem is, at the moment, that decisions appear to emerge fully formed, and often without any reliable evidence because the process is not transparent. The extreme example is along the lines of ACTA, which has had next to no public input (and, since you mention democracy, doesn't seem to be prompted by any public desire).

      If there is a reason law cannot be engineered rather than seemingly pulled out of some politician's orifice (I think the naval-hatch idea gives many of them too much credit). Every law should have some reasoning behind it, and that reasoning should be clear, fully open and publicly accessible. If I wanted to build a bridge I'd have to show that there was a need for it, that it would correctly support the required load, would handle extreme conditions placed on it, would be built within a specified budget and countless other requirements. Why can't our lawmaking have a similar process? There should be some motivation for it, an analysis of the effects including unintended consequences, there should be a study of redundancy in case the target of this law is already covered by other law.

      Yes there will be statements made that will cause outcry, politicians will be heckled for their idiocy and baseless assumptions, but my hope is that two things would occur: One, that the public would learn to differentiate between tabloid hyperbole and something that should genuinely concern them, and two that politicians may become willing to change their minds in the face of clear evidence that the foundations of their arguments are baseless. A more scientific approach, similar to peer review. Surely that would be better than developing the law, the arguments and the facts behind closed doors?

    7. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      What harm to democracy? What curtailment of debate?

      Examples, evidence? Or is this whole debate based on a false premise, an urban legend akin to the nonsense that gets spoken about health and safety, or supposed European regulations?

      The FOIA has a broad range of exemptions, many of them relating to internal details of the administration of government, and particularly it explicitly exempts the kinds of advice given by the civil service to ministers (36.2.b). There's also a blanket exemption for anything "the disclosure of which would, or would be likely to, prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs" (36.2.c). So if ministers and civil servants claim that they fear their advice may be disclosed, I think their fears are groundless, and in fact I think they are a pretext, a spurious claim made to justify getting rid of or restricting FOIA.

      It's exactly like all those times someone blames "health and safety" for obliging them to ban some harmless activity, when really they just want an excuse to say no in order to make their job easier by having less work to do. Power corrupts, and lazy politicians would rather just rule by executive fiat than do the hard work that the job of engaging in proper open and representative democracy really requires of them. We should not so trustingly accept their claims about the inhibition of debate and the supposed harm to democracy at face value.

  3. Jacqui

    Example: green refuse recycling

    Our local refuse company collects grey bins one week and the green bin the following week.

    The green bin is recyclable and if you put out the wrong bin it is left and you end up with

    and overflowing bin the following two weeks.

    However it is not made public that all collections are dumped in the same heap and sorted afterwards. There is some recycling done but this is done by manual and machine sorting

    from the one big heap of junk.

    The alternating collections are currently a PR gambit. They *could* start delivering "green" contents to a distinct store/recycling plant however I have been told by bin lorry driver that there is currently only one dump point - so it all gets mixed up, making bi-weekly collections a joke.

    If you make a FOI request to my local council they have met goverment recycling targets etc and it sounds like the extra costs of bi-weekly collections are working even though they have no real purpose -yet.

  4. mark 63 Silver badge

    "FOIA was "utterly undermining of sensible government", Blair said."

    right fuck him and the party he rode in on!

    not voting for him again , oh wait...

    in that case I shall write to the lead singer of Echo and the Bunntmen!

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    'without succumbing to "emotion".'

    or inherent biases..? Yeah good luck with that. The idea that the government even listens to advisory or review panels is a myth in itself. They get their conclusions first then work backwards, as always. I hope FOI can survive this deviousness...

  6. Gordon Pryra

    I always found it funny that you could ask a question and affectively say "white rabbits, tell the truth" and people actually believe this to be the case?

    Trying to get information out of my local police force is fun, you need to send them a FOAI request in hard copy with a cheque for a tenner, which they can then say they have not received over and over. Good old Herts Constabulary and good old FOI

    1. Secret geek

      That's not FOIA.

      Just for info: Seems either you or Herts Const don't know the difference between DPA (personal information) and FOIA (non-personal information). They can't charge you anything for requesting information from them as long as it doesn't relate to a living individual and won't cost them more than £450 to find and extract it. It also doesn't need to be in hardcopy, email is more than sufficient as long as you use your real name.

      It sounds more like that you're requesting personal data (for yourself?) and for this a £10 charge is perfectly legit under DPA and a erquest in hardcopy is necessary along with ID to confirm you are who you say you are.

  7. Desk Jockey

    Open Government

    Watch the first episode of Yes Minister which covers the issue of Government being open and transparent. I like one mandarin's quote, "The thing about Open Govenment is that you can either have openness or Government."

    Jokes aside, FOI is not a clear cut. Many people ask for documents that could be useful and allows them to do all sorts of things. It is also a way of holding Government to account for decisions. Unfortunately, it is also easily abused.

    I will let you into a little secret about FOI... Who processes them? Well that would be civil servants (or local government officers but let's keep this simple)! Who pays for civil servants? Well that would be you, the taxpayer! Want to gues how many FOI requests the anti-nuclear crowd put in? That would be in the hundreds PER YEAR! Tabloid journalists put in thousands each year. Tabloids are making a profit on this information provided by civil servants, the anti-nuke and environmentalists crowd are costing the taxpayer millions through the sheer volume of requests. This is your money being spent here whether you agree with it or not.

    Sometimes people get good stuff through FOI (proper journalists such as those of the Private Eye ), but transparency comes at a price. With fewer civil servants now, your nurse, doctor, soldier, scientist etc has to spend their time providing the raw data which the even fewer civil servants then sort out for the FOIs. The anti-nuke crowd have a deliberate policy of spamming pointless requests just to be nasty. MPs are equally guilty although they don't have to use FOI. I wish to emphasise that THEY DO NOT MIND WASTING YOUR MONEYTHROUGH FOI FOR THEIR SELFISH ENDS!

    So yes, let's not throw out something that can be very useful, but for god's sake let's find a way of stopping these inconsiderate b****rds from wasting taxpayer's money and draining resources. Suddenly, that Yes Minister joke looks horribly accurate and not so funny when you think of all the money that is being wasted.

    1. Tom 13

      You missed an even bigger problem.

      I wish I could find the reference, but within the last 3 months I have seen reports that 80%+ of FOIA requests filed in the US seek information relating to work contract disputes between unions and government, or EEO disputes, none of which are the public policy aspect being debated here.

    2. Anonymous Coward

      and on the flip side

      Preventing an incompetent government employee from being incompetent at their job sounds like a WIN to me.

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I will not vote for a party that hides things from me

    I pay for it - I want to know about it.

    There is nothing that is too "sensitive" beyond basic Data Protection.

    I don't care if it's military, business or politics; if I'm paying for it but you're not willing to discuss it with me, then a) you're not working in my interests and b) whatever you're doing is immoral by my standards.

    What's immoral? What's the biggest threat to the country? What's the biggest threat to me? I'll decide.

    Of course, in practice this just means that I always vote for the opposition...

    1. Desk Jockey
      Thumb Down

      @AC 15:06

      I will resist making insulting comments about your post and simply suggest you go to your company's managers (assuming you work in the private sector) and ask for details, including contract value, of every single supplier. Then ask for their strategy on how to undercut the competition or any agreements they have. Finally ask for the detailed tech specs of their products. I bet your company tells you where to go! There is no way they will give you information (which will cost them time and money to produce) that you can then give to a competitor. Government is exactly the same, only on a large scale. If you think your interests are served by Government putting every single sensitive information on the internet for anyone to rip off and use against them, then you are a moron!

      The arguments about the Government hiding stuff that should be legitimately available to you so that they can avoid scrutiny is a completely different one. I make no excuses on their behalf, they can be total w****rs on this. Not the same issue.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        @Desk Jockey

        I will also resist making insulting comments as it's cruel to make fun of the inflicted.

        You seem to have missed the bit where I said, "I pay for it". Comparing the government to the private sector is the sort of idiocy that got us into our current, and indeed many of the previous bubble-like, predicaments.

        I repeat my statement, if I pay for it, I want a say in it. There is no other way that a fair system, resistant to abuse, can work.

        How can the government be working in my best interests if it doesn't know what I consider my best interests to be and won't tell me what it assumes they are?

        1. Desk Jockey

          The ICO was right

          AC - You are missing the point. I know what I am talking about as I used to process FOI requests. Over 80% of the requests I processed were dealt with no problems, we mostly sent people what they asked for. Where we refused to release stuff, we generated a large audit trail proving why we took that decision. They were good reasons which I won't bore you with as they were actually quite mundane.

          I broadly agree with the principles you set out in your last post that where you said comparison with the private sector got us into this mess and that you should know what policy makers think your interests are. I think we are sold down the river by the politicians on a daily basis, I don't like it any more than you do.

          But just because you pay for something, it does not give you the automatic right to everything. Presumably you are using a Microsoft or Apple product to access this (humour me if you use Linux!)? You paid for that product, but you have no right to access its source code. That is made clear in the small print. Your rights with Government follows a similar principle in that you have the right to hold it to account and to request documents. It does not mean to have the automatic right to every single detail. The FOI Act sets this out and openly publishes its exemptions. A lot of thought went into it, they weren't written on the back of a fag packet!

          The fact that people will abuse the act to avoid proper scrutiny means it is not enforced properly, it does not mean that whole thing should be changed to fully open access. You may not think the UK is open enough, try asking another country's government for the same level of openness. Not many of them will oblige!

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Desk Jockey, you get business better than you get the principles of democracy.

        So to put it in terms you can understand: We are the owners of the company, and if we give the board an order, they will damn well execute it, because the company exists to serve *OUR* interests, not theirs. If we want to know their strategy, if we want to see the details of the contracts they have signed, whatever we want to know, they had better tell us. How on earth else are we to ever be sure they aren't embezzling, or signing overpriced contracts with large backhanders from other companies owned by their families or friends?

        I really don't think you have the right understanding of how the citizens should stand in relation to their government.

    2. Tom 13

      Righty ho then. So that means you would have fully supported

      a German agent positioned in the UK having been able to find out the government had an Enigma machine?

      Don't be daft. Some things need to stay secret. The trick is to limit it to only those things that need to be secret while fully discussing those that don't.

      1. Graham Marsden

        @Tom 13

        I've just downvoted you for a silly analogy.

        Yes, some things need to remain state secrets, but when a government passes laws through Policy Based Evidence Making or selects a supplier for a contract based on a handshake done in a back room with an agreement for a lucrative directorship to follow or many of the other decisions that are made on behalf of the public but not for the *benefit* of the public, we, the votes and taxpayers want, need and *deserve* to know what is being done in our name.

  9. Shocked Jock

    The Scottish example....

    ..of a broader definition of what is open for the public to look at suggests that Westminster complaints are ill-founded, at best. That, or that Westminster's powerful have something to hide which on principle shouldn't be hidden.

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    @Tom 13

    There was a war on. They took down the road signs! You could go to prison if your curtains weren't tight fitting! If you can't stay on the same page, please at least try to stay in the same book.

  11. Alfred 2

    Am I the only one ...

    ...who thinks that if you pass an act supporting open government, and openness in government, it's not a good idea to go to war on a dodgy premise?

    (Or should that be wars on dodgy premises?)

    And how can the police ask for a tenner for an FOI request? It's supposed to be free!

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