Is Spy.org.uk wrong to solicit suggestions for FoIA requests?

Spy.org.uk recently asked for suggestions for requests for information to make under the Freedom of Information Act(FoIA).

They will take some of the requests they receive and ask for the information via the FoIA procedures and then track the progress of the requests. This seemed to me to be a valuable exercise in testing out how well FoIA will work in practice, enabling people to hold the government to account for its promises regarding FoIA.

I’ve received comments from a friend that were very critical of this action (and by implication my support for it). To paraphrase, I was asked if I’d prefer that the security agencies waste time dealing with phoney FoIA requests or if I thought their time was better spent on protecting UK citizens.

I would argue in response that making FoIA requests for the purpose seeing how well FoIA works in practice is an entirely legitimate exercise, so long as it is done with care and they don’t flood the govt with frivolous requests.

If they were to carefully choose a handful of requests on the basis of there being a clear public interest in the release of the information, and no strong overriding objections (e.g. no clear reason to invoke the exemptions) then I would argue both that the exercise is a legitimate means of highlighting how well FoIA works in practice and that the burden on the departments processing the requests would be minimal. I hope and expect Spy.org.uk to do this.

If on the other hand they simply submitted every suggested request without regards to whether the information is already available elsewhere, whether the exemptions would clearly apply and whether the information requested is of real public interest, then I’d agree that would involve a waste of the government’s time and resources in processing the requests. I do not support such an exercise.

Note that any FoIA request, valid or otherwise, that is processed by the security services will take time and resources away from their core duties of protecting the country. This point along with the nature of the work they do is, I presume, the prime reason why Section 23 of the FoIA provides an absolute exemption for information supplied by, or relating to, bodies dealing with security matters (see also Section 2 on the effect of the exemptions). GCHQ, MI5 et al are all explicitly listed as being such bodies.

Of course some processing may need to be done by the security services for the purposes of determining whether the information requested is information that is supplied by or related to the security services. However ISTM that only a small fraction of the likely requests would involve the security services and the exemption will minimise the burden imposed by the remainder.

I’d add that the government has had 4 years since FoIA went through parliament in order to ensure that the security services receive the extra resources they may need to process FoIA requests.

It seems to me obvious that campaigners like spy.org.uk would mount exercises to test the FoIA out to see if, in practice, it delivers on the governments promises related to FoIA and that this is a legitimate exercise so long as it doesn’t amount to an attempt to flood the govt with requests. Given that and the 4 year implementation period, failure of the government to adequately resource the security agencies and other departments to deal with FoIA requests would seem to me to be a failure of the government to implement the Act properly and responsibility would lie squarely with the government, not those making the requests.

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The govt’s hostility to Freedom of Information shows again

The BBC is reporting that civil servants have stepped up the shredding of official documents, ahead of the Freedom of Information Act coming into force:

From a series of parliamentary answers Dr Julian Lewis, the Conservative spokesman for the Cabinet Office, says he has discovered a huge acceleration in shredding.

The Department of Work and Pensions destroyed nearly 37,000 files last year – up 22,000 on four years ago when the Act was passed.

The number of files destroyed by the Ministry of Defence and the departments of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Trade and Industry has also risen dramatically.

Dr Lewis has called for an investigation by the information commissioner Richard Thomas

This follows on from the recent reports that the govt has ordered internal emails more than 3 months old to be deleted.

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Govt keeps legal advice re: ID cards secret

In line with its (lack of) commitment to freedom of information, the government has decided to keep the legal advice it received on whether the ID cards bill conforms to the European Convention on Human Rights secret. According to The Register:

This line, however, merely confirms the Government’s shameless approach to human rights in its legislation. One of the early moves of the Blair Government was to incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights into UK legislation in the Human Rights Act. This one might suppose would mean that the UK Government would be far more careful about human rights in its legislation, but instead of this it tends to be used as a kind of cloaking device. Instead of being accompanied by detailed assessments of human rights impact, UK legislation now tends to have just a one liner saying ‘the provisions of this legislation are compatible with the European convention of human rights.’ So, as Browne put it today, the Cabinet has advice on the impact prepared for it, and nobody else needs to see the advice because the legislation has been deemed to be compatible by the Cabinet. Trust us.

Thus in one fell swoop this illustrates both the weaknesses of the human rights/freedom of information legislation and the attitudes of this government towards privacy, openness, freedom of information and human rights. I.e. they know best and are quite happy to keep secrets about the legislation that will open up our lives to their scrutiny at the expense of our privacy and freedom.

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Govt orders destruction of emails

According to this report in the Scotsman newspaper, the government has ordered that all government emails more than 3 months old be destroyed:

The Cabinet Office, effectively the Prime Minister’s department, says messages more than three months old must be wiped by Monday, The Times revealed.

The deadline comes just 11 days before the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act comes into force.

Conservative leader Michael Howard has written to Mr Blair demanding an explanation.

“There are reports that your Government is engaged on a massive email destruction binge in order to get round the law which you yourself passed,” he wrote.

“How hypocritical can you get ? What is your Government trying to hide ?

“The public are entitled to a clear and simple explanation as to what is going on.”

Many officials, including those in the PM’s Strategy Unit and the offices of Alan Milburn and Cabinet Secretary Sir Andrew Turnbull, receive around 100 emails a day.

The Cabinet Office’s 2,000 staff have been told to print and file emails that should be disclosed but there will be no supervision. (Emphasis added)

Such is the government’s commitment to freedom of information. But then anyone who reads the Freedom of Information Act would soon realise the government’s commitment was weak — the Act sets out a right of access to information held by the government and then produce a list of exemptions so broad as to effectively nullify that right.

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Labour issuing more gagging orders than the Tories

The Guardian reports that:

Ministers in Tony Blair’s government have issued more official gagging orders than the previous Conservative government, figures show.

The rise in the controversial orders – which keep secret Whitehall documents in court cases – has occurred despite official assurances that their use would be curtailed.

Ministers signed 100 public interest immunity certificates (PIIs) in the five full years since Mr Blair came to power in 1997, compared with 70 under the previous five years of the Tory government.

The figures have been collated from lists of orders obtained during an investigation by the BBC’s File on Four programme, which will be broadcast tonight on Radio 4.

Rules introduced in the wake of the arms-to-Iraq affair in the mid-1990s were supposed to reduce the volume of such orders.

While in opposition, Labour made political capital by criticising Conservative ministers for exploiting gagging orders to suppress politically embarrassing evidence. Sir Richard Scott, during his inquiry into the arms-to-Iraq affair, delivered a scathing attack on the abuse of such certificates.

So much for their commitment to freedom of information and open government.

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