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140113FoI

Vox Political has come late to this party but has found confirmation that the worst practices experienced during this site’s own many attempts to use FOI are not only well-known by government departments, but so widely-used as to be epidemic.

Iain Dunt’s full article is on the politics.co.uk website and may be found here.

We can cut to the chase: “Governments have responded to FoI, not by embracing the spirit of openness but by finding ways of avoiding compliance while staying within the letter of the law,” states Mr Dunt.

“The first response is not to record information at all.” This is what was claimed when Vox Political tried to get an update on the DWP’s infamous Incapacity Benefits: Deaths of recipients last year. In fact, as a later email from the DWP representative confirmed, the department not only keeps that information – it keeps it up-to-date in a formate that means it could be provided to anyone who desires it, at practically no cost! “Alternately they just don’t to hold it centrally, as in the MoJ’s refusal to collate incidence reports from prisons about contraband. They can then cite an S12 cost of compliance exemption, saying it would cost more than £600 to collect the data.”

“Or they cripple themselves with ineffective systems, like email searches than can only scan titles rather than the message content.

“This approach is hopeless if one is interested in effective government. What sort of company would make do without information as pertinent as that which the MoJ claims to have no interest in? If the government cares about contraband it may wish to find out how it gets into jails. If it cares about hate crime it may wish to find out which faiths are being targeted.

“One quick glance at Google Analytics gives me much more information about the aims and achievements of this website than government departments have about matters of national importance. A Google Mail account allows far greater search and retrieval than the system employed in Whitehall. We’re not talking top-level data here. This is simple stuff.

“When these tried and tested methods fail, departments cite an S22 exemption, saying the information is intended for future publication, although they can rarely confirm when the future publication will take place.” This is the current excuse hanging over the Vox FOI request. However, guidance from the Information Commissioner’s Office states that a government department must give separate consideration to whether or not withholding the information is “sensible, in line with accepted practices, and fair to all concerned”. It also states that early release of information is not justifiable if “harm” results from it – but this seems to apply only to commercially-sensitive information. Oh – and the government is advised to provide a likely publication date if it wishes to apply an s22 exemption. None of these apply to the Vox FOI request, as has been pointed out – at considerable length – in the most recent correspondence between Yr Obdt Srvt and the DWP.

“Or they cite S35 on the formulation of government policy – an exemption intended to relate to high-level government police but which is increasingly applied far more broadly.

“Or – as in the DWP risk register case – they cite the S36 exemption on the basis of prejudice to effective conduct of public affairs. As several judges have made clear, this is overwhelmingly used to save ministerial blushes rather than protest honest internal debate.

“Finally, they cite the S43 exemption on commercial interests to keep the activities of privately-run public services, such as those delivered by Atos and G4S, out the public eye. Labour has pledged to make these firms subject to FoI if it gets to power but even if it does so, the commercial interest exemption allows the department and the contractor to play a game of hot potato, constantly citing commercial sensitivity in refusing to reveal information which is manifestly in the public interest.”

The article goes on to say that, rather than release information that might embarrass the current administration, the government is perfectly happy to sacrifice its own effectiveness and – in effect – cripple itself.

Is this effective use of taxpayers’ money? No.

Depending on what the DWP says when the deadline on the Vox reconsideration request arrives (September 29, thank you for asking), it might not even succeed in its main aim of finding a justifiable reason for keeping information out of the public domain.

Follow me on Twitter: @MidWalesMike

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