How Whitehall neutered the Freedom of Information Act – Ian Dunt,

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 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.

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  1. john ingamells (@geovanni218) September 16, 2014 at 11:50 pm - Reply

    i have to admit that i was optimistic ( stupidly ) that the FOI was a mechanism to distribute information and respond genuinely and adequately to requests on both a personal level and from groups and other bodies. I have made a dozen or so requests to differing bodies, ministers and health trusts, and i can honestly say every reply has been a debacle of honesty and democracy and an exercise in pedantry and delay tactics. I have even asked questioned department of health/nhs england in respect of my mother, who passed away in 2013 with cancer. Each response was an insult to my intelligence as well as insensitive. I wrote to Jeremy Hunt ( not cockney rhyming slang ) to try and ask when and in which circumstances he would be held accountable for problems in NHS England and staffing and care of patients. I am interested to know , especially as he really is anti NHS and is endeavouring to sell off the bulk to private healthcare, mostly US, what circumstances would he be accountable for the NHS, and be in a position to either resign or be sacked. No satisfactory response after many attempts! He appears totally untouchable but not prepared to admit it under FOI. FOI is a joke.

    • Mike Sivier September 30, 2014 at 1:16 pm - Reply

      The Health Secretary’s responsibility for the NHS was revoked by the Health and Social Care Act 2012.

  2. gay September 17, 2014 at 7:49 pm - Reply

    LiHi. Im searching for little infomation on desicions made by the dla i was in reciet of higher rate of dla on the 5/6/2014. I recied. A letter sayin indefinate desicion i was still n receit of higher rate i had a car ,ON THE10/6/2014 i received another desision saying i was in the lowest rate. Indefinte meaning i lost my car are they allowed by law to do this i am still waiting a out come from this as i appealed and asked them wich letter do i go iff obviosly was the second i have called n ask them about the first desision as times gone by they lost the first letter si convenitly so they asked me to fax it to them si i did a day later igot it back she said so i had a copy aswell as them i just grinded my teeth n laughed had to on the pathetic sad simple ansers from them. my health has worsend. I am at the nd of the riad now im on the verge of endin i in so much pain an money worries. On top i dont have a life im just feel as im just in the way now.

    • Mike Sivier September 17, 2014 at 11:21 pm - Reply

      Don’t give them any satisfaction – demand what’s yours and if you health is being threatened, put that front and centre. Talk to the press, for example.
      As for the substantive part of your post – can anybody answer the question? I don’t have personal experience in this area.

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