On the records

Public records, open data and Freedom of Information

Chris Cook

A few weeks ago, the Financial Times leader column – the voice of the newspaper – issued a fairly damning verdict on the Information Commissioner’s Office about its weak enforcement of the Freedom of Information Act. Big central government departments – particularly the Cabinet Office – routinely flout the law. The ‘paper wrote:

The Cabinet Office scarcely pretends to comply. And why would it? Christopher Graham, the Information Commissioner, is responsible for enforcing the act – and he has proved to be a paper tiger. He has the power to investigate, demand documents and prosecute the non-compliant. But his preferred regulatory tool is forbearance. So the worst that departments have to fear from refusing to follow the law is being asked to have another go at answering requests at some later date.

Mr Graham replied fairly grumpily on our letters page.

…we served a decision notice against the Department for Education, clearly setting out our position in general and on the specific point that the secretary of state’s private email was caught by the act (in the circumstances of that case). We also served a further decision notice ordering the Cabinet Office to comply with a request for information relating to the prime minister’s use of non-GSI email accounts. Non-compliance with the commissioner’s decision notice is contempt of court.

The record shows that the Information Commissioner’s Office regularly makes difficult decisions that challenge Whitehall – and we are not afraid to make them

It was not terribly convincing – and was filleted by others fairly comprehensively. But last week, the Information Commissioner’s Office released some documents in response to a FoIA request about the letter. The surprising part of the release is that it suggests the ICO’s staff not only wrote the letter, but are convinced by their arguments. Given that, it is worth unpacking the claims it makes – not least for their benefit. Read more

Chris Cook

The Freedom of Information Act has a clause which allows public authorities to ignore a request for information “if the request is vexatious”. It says little about what members of the public can do if they encounter vexatious government departments.

The Cabinet Office – which includes the prime minister’s office – seems now to be openly refusing to comply with the transparency law, especially when it comes to the person of the prime minister. His courtiers seem to regard FoIA requests as lèse-majesté, and to see fighting transparency as part of their roles. Read more

Martin Stabe

The London Fire Brigade has published its incident data for the past four years in the London Data Store, the capital’s open data repository.

The data, originally obtained by the Financial Times under the Freedom of Information Act and published last week in our London Fire Brigade response times map, is being released as open data because of widespread interest in the potential impact of fire station closures.

The London Fire Authority is defying mayor Boris Johnson’s order to put the proposed cuts to public consultation. The £45m cut in the brigade’s budget over two years, would see 12 fire stations, 18 engines and 520 jobs go. Read more

Chris Cook

Last week, I went to Wolverhampton where I spoke at a local debate, organised by the university and Pat McFadden, the local MP, about the local authority’s school. I was the warm-up act for Lord Adonis, former schools minister, setting the scene about the city’s education system before his talk on lessons on school improvement.

It was interesting event – and the city is clearly considering its future and the role of education within it. There is – judging by my inbox – serious and deep interest in improving schools in the city. One of the things I sought to do was set out Wolvo’s position in relation to the rest of the country – and what statistics about the city tell us.

Here is my presentation: Read more

Kate Allen

By Kate Allen and Jonathan Moules

A new institution which aims to maximise the UK’s world-leading position in the emerging field of data use for the creation of new businesses and services is set to launch today.

The Open Data Institute, which was announced by George Osborne in last year’s Autumn Statement, will be the first such organisation of its kind in the world. It will receive £10m government funding over the next five years and aims to raise an equal amount from private donors. It has already attracted $750,000 from eBay founder and philanthropist Pierre Omidyar. Read more

Kate Allen

The government has made admirable moves towards openness and transparency in recent years, with one landmark step being to publish all payments by government departments of £500 or more. Communities secretary Eric Pickles has gone further, this week deciding to start publishing all spending by his department of £250 and above.

But there is a problem. The spreadsheets list each individual payment, not total amounts per supplier. And suppliers’ VAT numbers are not provided. This makes summarising the payments – often across thousands of lines of data – a very difficult job for anyone aspiring to create aggregate figures.

Let’s take Mr Pickles’ department, Communities & Local Government, as an example. Its latest quarterly release contains 9,750 lines of data. It encompasses all sorts of activities, from PFI grants to mobile phone line rental charges. Many of the payments require an expert jargon-buster to interpret: did you know that “NNDR billing authorities receipts” means business tax?

The smallest payment listed during the period was £1.24 to Banner Business Supplies for stationery. The largest was £1.9bn to the Office of the Paymaster General (those NNDR billing authorities receipts again). A government department is a very complicated entity and trying to understand its activities through scrutinising its history of individual payments is rather like trying to write a biography of a subject by looking solely at their bank statements. Read more