Friday, 21 December 2012

News Roundup

Recent revelations under the Freedom of Information Acts, north and south

Kerry deal still clear as butter
Despite a Freedom of Information request, the Irish Independent has been unable to discover what incentives were offered to Kerry Group to set up its Global Technology and Centre in Ireland. The documents were withheld or heavily redacted, as commercially sensitive.

Joan Burton's team blew €5K on staff party
The Irish Mail on Sunday revealed that the Republic's Department of Social Protection spent over €5,000 on its annual party for current and retired staff, including €1,000 on spot prizes. There was particularly strong criticism at the cost, while the Department was deciding which social welfare benefits to cut.

EU presidency website to cost State €250,000
Among the costs of the upcoming Irish presidency of the European Union, the website alone will cost nearly a quarter of a million Euro. The figures can be seen in contracts obtained through an FOI request and published on

Queen's University Belfast was allocated extra student places on the basis of nothing more than an informal conversation between the Vice Chancellor and the Minister, according to the Derry Journal. This information was provided via FOI to Derry-based lobby group U4D, which is pressing for more places for the local University of Ulster, and Assembly member Pat Ramsey of the SDLP.


Slow, Slow, Slow ...

"Our Department’s performance compares favourably with that of other jurisdictions," Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness told his party colleague, Cathal Ó hOisín, in the Northern Ireland Assembly back in March, when asked about timeliness of responses to Freedom of Information requests. It turns out he was being economical with the truth - on a scale that would put Scrooge to shame.

The Minister pointed out that the Welsh Government responded to just 75% of requests on time, while both the Scottish Government and Whitehall managed just 84%. He compared these to the response rate of 88% for his department.

This sounds impressive - until you delve into the details. The 88% statistic relates to the entire period from 2005 to 2010. When Mr Ó hOisín asked for a more recent update, the Minister simply ignored this. It's not hard to see why: the statistics for 2011 are, quite frankly, disgraceful. The OFMDFM Annual Report on Freedom of Information shows that, of 168 requests received, just 70 were answered on time. That's a total of 42%. What's more, 18 requests - 11% of the total, are listed as 'still being processed'.The report is undated, but appears to have been published in October this year.

This is an astonishingly poor performance from the Department. Not only were almost three out of five requests were not answered in time, but more than one in ten requests were still unanswered ten months after the end of the year.

Maybe on Planet McGuinness that counts as a favourable response rate. Not anywhere else.

(For background to this, see my previous entry)

Update: on the same day as this was posted, the Information Commissioner's Office announced that the FOI performance of the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister will be monitored by them.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

A Fragile Flower

How serious are Northern Ireland’s First Minister and Deputy First Minister about transparency? Not very, it seems. To take 320 days to answer a request might be a one-off error; but foot-dragging in a number of recent FOI responses suggests the Ministers approach disclosure with all the enthusiasm of a sulky teenager scribbling homework on the way to school – and nobody seems to be doing anything about it.

The long delay to Jeffrey Dudgeon’s request, finally delivered a day before they would have been forced to disclose by a court, was clearly not a case of mere sloppiness, a fact no doubt evident to the Information Commissioner, whose growing exasperation at the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) can be read through the polite lines of repeated Decision Notices:

12 May 2011 – after an internal review was still uncompleted after more than 70 days:

“The Commissioner would also expect a public authority to inform a complainant if the internal review was going to take longer than 20 working days and explain why. The Commissioner would remind the public authority of its obligations in this regard.”

24 May 2011 – a January request was still under consideration by the Minister’s Private Offices. The Office was unable to say when it would be able to respond.

“The Commissioner would … remind OFMDFM that the Act does not provide for such an extension to the statutory time limit. The process of seeking such approval must be completed within the time limits set out in the Act.” 

4 July 2011 – An enquiry from the previous October had resulted in a review for ministerial approval by January, but nothing more was heard until a request from the Commissioner in June, when it was promptly provided.

“The Commissioner notes that this is the third Decision Notice he has issued in three months relating to a failure by OFMDFM to respond to a request. The Commissioner has expressed his concern to OFMDFM and will consider whether further action is necessary.”

26 September 2011 – a July response was still outstanding after two months.

“Prior to this decision the Commissioner has issued three Decision Notices in the past six months which record OFMDFM’s failure to comply with the Act in respect of timescales for response. The Commissioner expects this pattern of non-compliance to be addressed by OFMDFM.”

24 October 2011 – four long-overdue requests. Three were from September the previous year, the other from December.

“Prior to this decision the Information Commissioner has issued at least three decision notices in the previous six months which record the failure of OFMDFM to comply with FOIA in respect of timescales for response. The Information Commissioner expects this pattern of non-compliance to be addressed by OFMDFM.”

(By the standards of decision notices, that’s pretty much steam coming out of the Commissioner’s ears)

12 December 2011 - two months later, another failure to meet the statutory timetable.

"despite agreeing to disclose the financial information OFMDFM did not do so until three months later. The Information Commissioner reminds OFMDFM of its obligations in relation to the statutory time limits in the FOIA."

16 July 2012 – after six months of quiet, the Commissioner feels compelled to raise his voice again, with a request from January was still uncompleted:

“The Commissioner is particularly disappointed that OFMDFM has failed to respond to his correspondence regarding this complaint. The Commissioner considers it important to give public authorities an opportunity to reconsider its handling of the case before issuing a decision notice. Many public authorities take this opportunity to rectify procedural failings, or provide additional explanatory information to the complainant. However that has not happened in this case”

The Commissioner, in such circumstances, is entitled to call upon a public authority to sign an undertaking to improve their behaviour, like this one from the Welsh Assembly. But instead, he again simply “reminds OFMDFM of its obligations in relation to the statutory time limits in the FOIA.”

It’s not just on the Information Commissioner’s website that this can be seen: over at What Do They Know, requesters have been facing the same approach – consistently being told that long overdue enquiries were ‘still under consideration’ – as if they had never heard of the Commissioner.

There’s good evidence that this is not simply incompetence or slack management – in fact, that the culture of the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister is one of resistance to enquiries, and this may well be a product of Northern Ireland’s peculiar politics.

With what Mick Fealty of the Slugger O’Toole website calls the ‘fragile flower defence’, those currently in charge like to claim that the province needs special treatment to defend it: that certain disclosures “could prevent the maturing of the Executive in Northern Ireland” because they would threaten the cohesion of the mandatory coalition government.

The Belfast News Letter, which says the Executive wrote this year to Westminster asked to be allowed, like the government in the South, to charge for requests (which caused an immediate decline in their number there), seems sceptical about this claim, pointing out that the former DUP First Minister, Ian Paisley, criticised what he called ‘lazy journalists’ using FOI after his son’s close business relationship with a developer was revealed using the Act. Interestingly, his Sinn Féin counterpart, Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness told the Assembly this year that ‘There is absolutely no doubt that freedom of information allows people to abuse their access to information.’ What this suggests is not a genuine concern for security but rather a grudging approach to transparency.

Finally, in order to find out more, I submitted an FOI request to the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, asking how many requests this year had been overdue and for how long.

Guess what? The response is now overdue.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

News Roundup #4

Katherine Donnelly: New frontiers are opening up in drive to lure foreign students
FOI request reveals that the highest number of international students in the Republic's third-level sector is University College Dublin, with 2,620 bringing in over €30 million. Total international students in Irish colleges amount to 32,000.

(My former colleagues in Scotland will no doubt wince at the statement that "Ireland is up against giants such as Australia, Canada and the US in seeking to lure them." It seems their efforts have gone unnoticed ...)

Shortall accused Reilly over second list
Documents obtained by the Irish Times under FOI show that then minister of state Róisín Shortall confronted Minister of Health James Reilly over changes to the list of primary health care centres which included two new centres in his own constituency. 

Pat Finucane murder pistol handed back to British Army by RUC
A bit of cross-border FOI - using the UK's Freedom of Information Act, RTE reporter Richard Dowling obtained from the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) a copy of a formerly secret chapter of the Stevens Report into the death of solicitor Pat Finucane at the hands of Loyalist paramilitaries. This showed that the gun used, which originated with the British Army, was handed back to them despite its status as evidence. Writing on the RTE website, Dowling points out that this request would not have been possible in the Republic as the Garda Siochana are still outside the remit of FOI in Ireland.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

An image which sums up Ireland's FOI situation

Here's an image which sums up how FOI works in Ireland. It's the disclosure log of the Republic's Department of Foreign Affairs for the month of January. There are just 11 requests. One is from a member of the Oireachtas (Parliament). One is a private individual. The remaining nine are all journalists. (As a simple comparison, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office received 1,353 requests in the last three months of 2011) At €15 a pop just to ask a question, then €75 for a review and €150 for an appeal to the Information Commissioner that's not really a surprise - who can afford to ask questions if they can't charge it as a business expense?

Friday, 7 December 2012

Called to the Bar

Freedom of Information was exercising the minds of Dáil deputies and Senators recently, with much concern expressed over the bill - but in this case it was the bar bill causing concern.

A report in the Irish Independent revealed that public representatives were outraged that they could be 'named and shamed' in future FOI requests which could reveal the amount of their bar tabs: a total of €73,000 is still outstanding this year for the Leinster House bar and restaurant.

Previous FOI disclosures have shown that several had unpaid bills exceeding a thousand Euro, with one owing €3,572. But until now, names have not been revealed; in the future, deputies and senators have been told they will be named in responses.

When it comes to expenses, the situation is more complicated. About a third of deputies receive 'unvouched' expenses - they are given an amount to spend, and not required to account for the money. The remaining two thirds are given a substantially larger sum to spend, in return for 'vouching' for their expenses - they have to have receipts. But as The revealed earlier this year, the receipts are not usually disclosable under FOI, for the simple reason that the records are not held, except by the representatives themselves (and not therefore disclosable).

The 'vouched' expenses system is monitored by a system of auditing in which only one in 10 representatives are required each year to produce their receipts. And while this probably acts as a reasonable check on corruption, it means that in only a fraction of cases the expenses are publicly available.

In the recent budget, it was announced that the system of unvouched expenses was to be ended as 'untenable'. But since this means the one third of deputies who currently receive their expenses under this system will now be able to claim about €10,000 a year extra, it's not likely to actually save money.

Information Roundup #3

Information Roundup #3

A roundup of recent FOI and data protection stories in the Republic of Ireland

Syrian wins appeal over failure to secure citizenship
It must now be 'unusual' for the reasons behind the decision-making of public bodies not to be provided, according to the Supreme Court. This is the outcome of a process in which a Syrian lawer, refused Irish citizenship, challenged the failure of the relevant Minister to disclose the reasons for doing so. FOI requests disclosed new documents but the Minister's reasoning was withheld; the Supreme Court, however, decided that this was unfair because it gave him no basis on which to challenge the decision.

Could Leveson affect Press Freedom in Ireland? 
Seamus Dooley, Irish Secretary of the NUJ asks if the Leveson suggestion that data collected by journalists might have to be disclosed could lead to a conflict with the Irish Supreme Court ruling that protection of sources is a constitutional right.

As part of the budget process, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform has confirmed that new Freedom of Information legislation is planned as one of a series of measures that include whistleblowing reform and legislation to bring greater transparency to lobbying activity.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Roundup #2

A roundup of recent stories about FOI in Ireland

Craigavon Borough Council have a code of conduct requiring staff to declare any familial relationships with other staff. But since it does not monitor this, it is unable to provide information as to how many familial relationships there are between staff.

According to the Irish Times, an FOI request in the Republic has revealed a that a report sent to the Minister for Arts on the proposed merger between the National Library and the National archives - expected to save a million Euro - would “seriously undermine” the ability of the “already very strained” bodies to deliver on their statutory obligations.

The Freedom of Information Act is often used by press officers as a 'delaying tactic', the Society of Editors Conference in Belfast has been told. At the organization's annual conference, the editor of the Belfast Telegraph claimed that it is now more difficult to access information that should be in the public domain:
“we are in a pretty shutdown society,” he said.“For information that can be given easily, we actually face delay. Information is actually harder and harder to get hold of.”

Ordinary People

One person who has started using Freedom of Information legislation in Northern Ireland to get answers to some issues which concern him is Simon Whittaker, an IT security consultant.

As a regular public transport user, he says, "I see things which aggravate me about the way our publicly funded transport network is run". Observing the difficulties of the project in trying to digitise and publicise timetable information for Translink, which runs the province's public transport network, he formed the opinion that "Translink was quite a closed shop and wasn't really interested in sharing information which it holds". (Note: this may change with the requirements to publish datasets in the Protection of Freedom legislation)

Concerned about security of data in the company's mLink application, which allows users to buy tickets on their mobile phone, he wrote about this in his blog, since it appeared that credit / debit card data was being sent unencrypted. He felt it showed very little thought had been paid to the security of users' data. This now seems to have been resolved.

In March, he wrote to them using What Do They, asking for details of their internal and external communications relating to security issues. They refused, citing commercial interests (Section 43). I would not expect all this information to be disclosed, since it might (a) reveal commercial secrets of a software supplier, and (b) might reveal a security gap which could be exploited by criminals (this would involve a different exemption). However, knowing that they have taken the issue seriously and have made positive efforts to respond is clearly in the public interest and they really should have provided some of what he requested, with appropriate redactions. He did not pursue it at the time because of other priorities.

On 21 September, he wrote once again through What Do They Know, asking for details of the cost of providing wifi services on the Network. This time he got the information he was looking for: it showed a total setup cost of over £700,000 and annual running costs of a quarter of a million pounds, with the majority going to fitting out the train system; new trains will include wifi as standard. This was picked up within a couple of weeks by a BBC report.

A further enquiry at the beginning of November asked for details of the research which had taken place to assess the likely availability and speed of the service, and to see the Service Level Agreement which had been entered into with the contract. The first part of his question received an answer, but the latter was withheld, once again using the Section 43 exemption. He has asked them to look again at this.

I believe he has good grounds for an appeal, to the Information Commissioner if necessary, though he is hoping to avoid this. "I'm also aware that this costs public money to do and would not undertake this lightly," he told me. Section 43 allows for information to be withheld if its release would damage the commercial interests of the public authority or an outside body. But there needs to be evidence that real harm would occur; examples would be disclosure of sensitive price information or trade secrets. A service level agreement, on the other hand, is exactly the kind of thing FOI is designed for - it allows the public to know that services offer value for money by ensuring that suppliers are penalised for not keeping their commitments. I can't see how a reputable company (or public authority) could suffer commercial losses through the disclosure of such information.

Simon's case is a good example of how FOI is changing the way we do things: as an everyday service user with specialist knowledge, he is exactly the kind of person who can add value to the work of public authorities by asking pertinent questions. Translink's responses have been prompt and helpful but show a wariness of disclosing information on their commercial transactions: not only should this be public data, it ought to help their work to have the public aware and able to comment on how this relationship is managed.

It's also a good example of how the Republic has fallen behind on the use of FOI: in the south, Simon would by now have forked out €45 for the information, with much bigger costs should he have to go to the Information Commissioner for help. "It was interesting," he says, "that it took me as an individual to ask these questions as opposed to them being asked by any reporters or audit offices". With reports that the Northern Ireland Executive wants to be allowed to charge for requests, this is an important point and one Simon feels strongly about: "In my view this makes a nonsense of the FOI act by ensuring that only the wealthy, companies and journalists have access to the information which makes our country run."

Monday, 26 November 2012

On the records

Two recent cases in the Republic about Freedom of Information and the Abuse of power

A Stroke Too Far?

In the Republic, Minister of Health James Reilly is in trouble - and Freedom of Information has a major part to play.

In July this year, working with Minister of State for Primary Care (a junior ministry) Róisín Shortall, the Department of Health produced a list of 20 primary care sites for development, a list weighted in favour of particularly deprived areas of the country. On 16 July, it was announced that this list, approved by the Minister of Health, was to be published; by now there were 33 potential locations on the list. When the list was published, it had grown to 35. There were two significant additions: Swords and Balbriggan, neither particularly deprived - and both in the Minister's constituency.

After it was disclosed that these locations had been added to the list after it was passed to Reilly's department, Minister of State Shortall - a member of the Labour party, minority partners in the governing coalition - said she found this 'difficult to understand'. Despite support from Labour rank and file, she was not supported and she resigned both the ministry and the Labour whip.

The accusation was made that this was 'stroke politics' - the kind of devious backroom deal that had been typical of Irish politics in the past - especially when it turned out that the site for the proposed Balbriggan centre was owned by a property developer linked to Reilly and his Fine Gael party. The Minister, who had had the list in his possession for a week before publication, explained that the selection of the sites was a complex operation: 'a logistic, logarithmic progression. There is nothing simple about it'.

But emails released under the Freedom of Information Act showed that the two sites in question were added to the list in just two hours, shortly before the list was published.

The opposition has demanded his resignation. In a country that cared about such things, he would have resigned already. But as a close associate of the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, and as deputy leader of the majority coalition partner, it's unlikely he will go.

'Stroke' politics may be alive and well in Ireland, but at least things which used to be carried out in private have now been exposed publicly. Let's hope the voters take this into account at the next election.

Off the record

Another medical-related story in the Republic: in the continuing saga of Savita Halappanavar's death, her husband has obtained copies of her medical records. A major part of the story was her repeated requests for a termination of her pregnancy, which was refused. But the records, eventually disclosed to her husband's lawyer, make not mention of this. They refer to her requests for a cup of tea and toast, and a blanket - but the termination requests do not appear to have been recorded.

This point led to a fascinating and troubling discussion on the MagicMum website. Commentators repeatedly described the medical records of their pregnancy and delivery as plain wrong: "There were lots of things missing off my notes", "Each time I was in hospital I would cry in agony during the night and request pain relief. Each morning was noted "patient slept well", "My notes were very different from the reality", "totally not true", "a work of fiction masquerading as medical notes", "My notes said I refused to push. I bloody did not."

One contributor pointed out that, in an understaffed wards, mistakes were inevitable: "When notes are being written , there are three things , what the patient thinks happened , what the staff member thinks happened and what actually happened . All of which are different ."

But others pointed out situations where facts seemed to be suppressed or distorted for a reason, especially when touching on the controversial subject of abortion:

"I've had an abortion previously and told the Coombe [Hospital] so. The midwife insisted on recording it as a 'confidential' pregnancy, saying that that was how they record them all, despite the fact that I told her 3 times I didn't mind it being recorded as an abortion."
"I went to two different hospitals over 5 pregnancies. The first of those 5 pregnancies resulted in a termination. That hospital put it down as an abortion on the following pregnancy. I changed hospital and on the next three pregnancies they recorded it as a miscarriage along with my other miscarriages. I told them at each booking in appointment that it was an abortion and they listed them all as miscarriages at 14, 13 and 10 weeks."

 Worryingly, while some contributors had been given easy access to their records, others found it difficult:

"I asked to see them once and the nurse told me I wasn't allowed see them. She went off to check with someone and came back to say I definitely wasn't allowed see them."
"I applied under data protection and was told that as I had a private consultant, the notes were not mine but his property."

"After my first was born, I wrote a complaint in my notes under the delivery records - when I requested my notes a year later, the page was photocopied and my complaint was cropped."

"I browed through and mixed with my notes were the notes of a totally different patient."
This is a really good example of the importance of Freedom of Information legislation available to ordinary people. One way of ensuring that accurate records are kept is to encourage people to check their own records. Falsifying information or playing down uncomfortable realities is an abuse of power - and one that can only be answered by ensuring that everyone has the right to tell their side of the story. It should not take a tragedy like that of Savita Halappanavar to get this message across.

Practice note: the access regime for personal data in the Republic is the opposite of that in Northern Ireland. In the south, personal data is provided for free by public authorities but other requests require a fee paid; in the north, FOI requests are free but Subject Access Requests for personal data require a charge (not always levied).

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

The Global Reach of Ireland's FOI

Because the Republic of Ireland's FOI law just applies within the state, it's easy to forget that it has much wider implications in this globalised world. Here's an example.

An article on the Croation website Help Net Security reports on the conflict between Facebook - an American multinational - and the data protection laws of the European Union. Facebook has complained that the threat of big penalties for breaches of data protection rules will discourage big companies - such as, well, themselves - from investing in Europe.

The article quotes an Austrian-based website called Europe Versus Facebook, which has obtained documents showing Facebook's lobbying activities, through a Freedom of Information request - to Ireland's Data Protection Commissioner.

It shows Facebook arguing against European Data Protection Commissioners cooperating; against 'privacy by default' settings, against the 'right to be forgotten', strong data breach notifications, heavy fines for breaches, and in favour of easier transmission of data outside the EU.

The document includes a briefing for the Minister of Justice and Equality, prepared for a meeting with representatives of Facebook, which notes that 'we must also seek to ensure that the interests and jobs created by stakeholders operating in Ireland are protected'.

Facebook has its European headquarters in Dublin, and is planning a major extension in the city.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

A Big Doggy Mess

Back to the continuing sad story of Lennox the dog. It turns out to be a big mess.

Lennox was a sort-of-but-not-quite pit bull, seized by Belfast City Council as a dangerous dog and eventually put down despite worldwide protests and two court hearings. The council had complaints from all over the world, including 214,687 signatures on an online petition. Even the First Minister intervened - but to no avail.

The Council's official position is here

The website of the Save Lennox campaign is here.

Say nothing

The Freedom of Information Act was one way in which those interested attempted to get involved. The Council faced a flood of letters, emails, and Freedom of Information requests. There are at least 50 on the issue on the What Do They Know website alone. Just between July and August this year, 152 requests were received.

It looks like the Council were completely unprepared for the storm of protest and concern that met what was a fairly routine activity. They say that the dog was violent and unpredictable, that their staff were threatened, and one councillor received a death threat. As a former local government officer, I'm sympathetic to their plight. But their FOI response is not a good example of how to respond.

To judge by the What Do They Know requests, their main approach seems to have followed the well-known Northern Irish slogan: 'Whatever you say, say nothing'. Many were left long unanswered. Of the July and August requests, about 80% received no response; the 32 which did get an answer were told their request was 'vexatious' - a very unsatisfactory interpretation of the vexatiousness provision. Between June 2010 and July this year, there were no vexatious requests; in the month of August, there were 60.

The Council responds - eventually

On 14 November, the Council eventually got around to sending out responses, in what appears to have beena mass mailing, due no doubt to the sheer volume involved. Here are five examples of their responses which show a very varied pattern of approaches:

On 14 July 2012, Stephanie Lowe from the USA asked for a series of documents about the council's decisions. This response came on 11 October and did not answer the questions but referred to the Council's official statement on its website.

On 22 July 2012, Patricia Sarko asked for 'complete' documentation, including details about the dog wardens. Receiving no reply, she wrote back on 21 August and 1 November. She got one of the 14 November replies, a very detailed response which refused to provide the information, saying it did not hold some and had decided not to provide the rest. This was on the basis that:

(a) disclosure about relations with vets and kennels would 'damage the Council’s credibility and reputation with the providers of these services' - no section of the act is cited, but presumably the claim is that this would prejudice the Council's commercial interests (Section 43) by making such companies reluctant to trade with them;

(b) that some information was exempt because it was held for the purposes of a criminal investigation (Section 30) not specified, but presumably under the Dangerous Dogs Act) - even after applying the public interest test, by which some exemptions can be overruled;

(c) details of the dog wardens were exempt as personal data (Section 40) - information identifying individuals, which they would not reasonably expect to be disclosed;

(d) communications with lawyers were exempt as covered by legal privilege (Section 42);

On the whole, this is a good and thorough response,  however belated. I'm not convinced all the correspondence needed to be withheld - some could have been provided with names redacted to protect individuals and companies. Nor is the criminal investigation exemption entirely convincing - the public interest is strong (there is an argument that the Dangerous Dogs Act was ill-thought out and rushed through for political reasons). And although personal data of dog wardens should certainly be withheld, experience about their qualifications and experience could be provided without identifying anyone (and some was already disclosed in 2010). In the interests of transparency, the public should get more information than this - and it should help to clarify the issue.

On 19 July 2012, Tracie Green wrote: 'hi i would like the daily mirror newspaper to give me the name of the kennels that lennox the dog was being held'. The Council replied on 26 July that 'we do not hold any information within the scope of your request' since they are not the Daily Mirror. This was completely unhelpful - it is both a clear request for specific information, which the Council does hold. A certain amount of common sense would have been appropriate here. Ms Green had already asked for 'all the files' on the case on 14 July, and having no response by 7 September she asked for an internal review - which she was entitled to, and should have got. There was no response. A request by her on 26 July for the location of the kennel was also ignored, and again on 7 September she asked for a review. She finally got a response on 14 November to the last question, which ignored her review request and cited the 'credibility and reputation' point. She responded the next day, again asking for a review; I am following this to see if she gets one.

On 14 July 2012 Diane Shaw asked the council 18 questions on the issue (including 'why do you call yourself human beings?'). She received one of the 14  November replies: a general answer, assurances the dog was cared for, and a reference to the official statement on the website.

On 14 July 2012 Annette Pappas asked for 'documents, court transcripts including recorded phone calls and emails concerning Lennox prior to his seizure including and beyond the date of his death, and means of death (method and by whom) and how he was disposed of and when??.records before during and after the case and where and by whom he was disposed of'.

Having received no response by 12 September, she asked for a review. Again, her answer came on 14 November. her review request was ignored and she was told the information was being withheld under Section 30 (the criminal investigation exemption) and, as regards the names of those involved, the 'credibility and reputation' point. There was no mention of the public interest test.

A poor response

From experience, I sympathise with Belfast City Council. But all in all, this is a poor response from them. The huge number of enquiries - 152 requests is more than many FOI officers have to deal with in a whole year - and the climate of suspicion and threats of violence certainly made it a difficult situation for any public authority to handle. An unprecedented situation naturally puts pressure on staff. But most of these enquiries were around a very small number of facts and issues.

It is completely unacceptible, both from a compliance and public relations point of view, to ignore requests completely. Even a simple 'we are coping with an unprecedented level of enquiries and we are working our way through them' response would at least allay public suspicion. Silence only feeds conspiracy theories.

Every requester should get an equal level of response. There appear to be different degrees of detail in these letters - the American requester got much less than others - and some requesters seem to get a less thorough reply.

Finally, there is a legitimate public interest in the handling of situations such as these. Information about how decisions are made, what factors are taken into account, and - possibly - what external organizations are involved, are all matters the public has a right to know. Full and early disclosure, within appropriate limits, is generally the best policy.

Otherwise, you end up with a situation like this: a big pile of doggy mess.

Vegans, Vikings and Golf Buggies

From What Do They Know, we now know that the Police Service of Northern Ireland provides kosher, halal, vegetarian and vegan meals to prisoners in its custody: for detainees

Down District Council believes its Viking re-enactment plan is a commercial secret. A requester was not convinced. But the Information Commissioner, and the First Tier Tribunal, reckon it is: 'there may be potential competitors who may propose to develop other Viking attractions and sites across the UK and the Republic of Ireland.'

Strictly for the car spotters: Armagh District Council outsources the maintenance of its vehicle fleet, which includes a Mercedes (but it's a bin lorry) and four E-Z Go golf buggies. 

Good Practice

When it comes to good practice in Freedom of Information, the Scottish Information Commissioner's office an excellent model. Even the website name '' rather than the dull '' from south of the border suggests a more proactive, public-focused approach.

A good example is the Commissioner's weekly roundup of decisions, which includes key messages such as 'conduct adequate searches at the first time of asking':

Decisions Round-up: 12 to 16 November 2012

It's always important to remember Freedom of Information is not about bureaucracy - it's about explaining.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Dublin Confidential

Here's an interesting sequel to the last item, about FOI disclosures from the Republic's Department of Finance. There are two points of interest: the confidentiality exemption, and the Information Commissioner's website.

The case is about the banking crisis of 2009. A panel of experts led by Rob Wright, a former Canadian deputy finance minister, were asked to look at how the Department handled the crisis: were ministers warned about the dangers of of overheating in the construction industry? The politicians had claimed they were not; the report, released after polling in the subsequent election, showed that they were.

Tom Lyons, business editor of the Sunday Independent, asked for access to records of interviews the panel carried out. Some were disclosed, but some were withheld. An appeal was made to the Irish Information Commissioner.

The issue was one of confidentiality. The Freedom of Information Act has an exemption - Section 26(1)(a) - for information provided in confidence, or where the person providing it has a reasonable expectation of confidence. In this case, the Department argued that former civil servants would not give information if they thought this would be disclosed. However, as the Commissioner's investigator pointed out, no evidence was provided that this would happen, no guarantee of confidentiality was given, and this claim was only being made about former civil servants: interviews with current staff were disclosed.

There was also an argument about prejudicing public affairs - Section 21(1)(a). The Department argued interviewees would refuse to participate if they thought there evidence would be published. Again, the Commissioner's office was not convinced.

The investigation also looked at the question of what records were held. It reveals that several interviews were carried out without Department staff present, and without records being kept. Nothing was held.

Strangely, there is no sign of this important decision on the Information Commissioner's website. To see the decision, and the records eventually disclosed to Tom Lyons, you have to go to Gavin Sheridan's blog at The Story, which has an excellent collection of FOI disclosed records:

Department of Finance releases Wright review panel documents

Thursday, 15 November 2012

News roundup: a lot about money

 Here is a roundup of recent stories in the Republic of Ireland featuring Freedom of Information:

State pays €240,000 to SF TD's solicitors

The Irish Times reports that the by-election in Donegal that Pearse Doherty of Sinn Féin won in November 2010 cost the country nearly half a million Euro - and a further €240,000 to pay Doherty's legal fees for the court challenge that forced the by-election to take place. The government of the time, deeply unpopular and with a slender majority, had avoided holding the vote for 17 months.

The Freedom of Information request that disclosed the figures also revealed that expenditure on the Moriarty Tribunal last year included  €1,122,041 for legal fees paid to seven individuals.

(Top tip for young graduates: don't pursue a career in Freedom of Information - go into the law).

An odd story from the Donegal Democrat: an anonymous letter circulating about Fianna Fáil councillor David Alcorn alleges improprieties in his expense claims based on information disclosed under an FOI request. 

Revenue warned State bodies of responsibility to comply with tax

Another Irish Times story reveals that government departments have been warned against allowing tax dodges from their staff. A Freedom of Information disclosure shows the chair of the Revenue Commissioners advising state bodies to apply the law properly, identifying issues such as benefits in kind, travel and subsistence expenses, and classifying employees as self-employed contractors.

Fatal guarantee by Finance was 'heroic': Hurley

Finally, a major story from the Sunday Independent, which gained access to Department of Finance records about the 2009 financial crisis after a two-year battle.  These consisted of records of interviews with important figures carried out in the process of producing the Wright Report on the Department's performance in the banking crisis.

The disclosure included comments from John Hurley, governor of the Central Bank at the time, who said the response of officials was 'heroic'. Extraordinarily, however, no records appear to have been kept of interviews with either Taoiseach Brian Cowen, Finance Minister Brian Lenihan, or departmental secretary general Kevin Cardiff.

What's especially notable here is that one weakness identified by the Report was that 'The lack of a coherent record of budgetary advice represents a major shortcoming in the systems of the Department of Finance.'

Part of the blame for this, ironically, was laid at the Freedom of Information Act itself:

Our review has established that possible Freedom of Information release does limit
the written record of non-consensual advice. Secretary Generals of other Departments have noted this. And it certainly appears to be the case in the Department of Finance. This is a paradox – a law introduced to provide greater public access to information has not done so, but has instead helped substantially to limit vital public records.
This is not a problem of the law - this is a problem of political culture. There is absolutely no reason why the existence of FOI legislation should discourage civil servants from writing down their advice. Why does this happen in Ireland? Mandarin arrogance? Political pressure? Either way, civil servants are failing in their duty - and it looks as if that particular failing is continuing.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

The Dog It Was That Died

The sad story of Lennox, the Belfast pitbull, turns out to have Freedom of Information implications. Who knew?

Lennox, a pit-bull type (nobody seems to know exactly what) was impounded as violent and dangerous by Belfast City Council in 2010 and was assessed as too dangerous to be kept. Ordered to be put down, Lennox was supported by his owners, their friends, and eventually a world-wide campaign to save him. The courts even became involved. But to no avail. Lennox was put down in July:

BBC: Pit bull-type dog Lennox put down, council confirms

Over at What Do They Know, in August a requester asked the Council for 'the names and locations of all sites that are used for the euthanization and cremation of siezed dogs in Belfast starting from January 2009 up to and including all current facilites.'

That ought to be a very straightforward request for the location of local authority facilities. But not after the Lennox story. The request was rejected as 'vexatious'. This is a rare process, usually used only where a requester writes abusively, or demands information with an obvious attempt to irritate, or engages in a continuous correspondence without purpose.

In this case, the correspondent had only written once before, demanding on 14 July to know why the cremated remains had not been returned to the family:

You denied a child the right of closure after two years of hoping her dog was returned. How are you able to justify that?
The response only arrived on 11 October, with apologies for the delay 'caused by the unprecedented and enormous volume of correspondence, including freedom of information (FOI) requests, that Belfast City Council received on this subject.' It explained that the remains had, in fact, been returned to the family.

A second request in this circumstance is hardly vexatious, especially as it was a plain request for information. But there is a background to this, as the final response - published after an internal review reversed the original one - shows.

No issue in Northern Ireland politics or society appears to have generated an enthusiasm for information transparency on anything like this level. What Do They Know features at least 20 Lennox-related requests, and the Council appear to have been taken aback by this, rejecting most of them as vexatious - a panic measure, it seems.

The reason seems to be the level of anger the case raised. As the BBC report points out, council staff were threatened with violence and one councillor received a death threat. In the circumstances, the Council decided to circle the wagons. In this case, the 'vexatious' response was withdrawn, but the locations of the cremation site has still been withheld - under Section 38 (1)(b) - because it was feared this would 'endanger the safety of a individual'. That's a rare exemption, and I've only seen it used once - in keeping secret the locations of animal testing research in universities.

Justified? Possibly. Perhaps we ought to call it 'the Lennox exemption'.

Monday, 12 November 2012


Over at The Story, as part of an ongoing process, they have published the Irish Government's briefing papers for cabinet meetings ten years ago:

Bertie Ahern’s Cabinet briefing papers June/July 2002

One interesting point is a discussion of changes to the Freedom of Information Act, which had been passed five years earlier. The Fianna Fáil government had just been re-elected and decided to consider the Act "with regard to its impact on the efficiency on [sic] decision-making". The result would be an emasculation of the Act with a reform in 2003 that would introduce charges and produce a dramatic reduction in the number of enquiries (other than personal information ones, which would remain free).

The Story includes a fascinating series of FOI disclosures - it's an excellent resource: just do a search through the tags for 'FOI'. 

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Excellence in infographics

From The Detail, an investigative journalism site in Northern Ireland, an excellent example of the kind of data analysis that can be produced from the details of a simple Freedom of Information request:

Is there poor pupil attendance at your local schools?

Kathryn Torney's piece looks at the different levels of pupil attendance in primary and secondary schools, with a fine graphic and some interesting analysis.

One issue raised is the problem of attendance in schools with a large intake from the traveller community.

There's also mention of some constructive attempts to overcome attendance problems:

• Kilcooley Primary School in Bangor runs an incentive scheme with certificates for full attendance each month, certificates for best class attendance each term and a cinema ticket for full attendance all year.

• Corpus Christi College in Belfast worked with Bombardier to reward pupils with 100% attendance each term with a flight around Northern Ireland. Over the course of the year around 300 boys were rewarded with the flight.

15 years a-growing...

Anyone interested in Freedom of Information in the Republic will want to consider attending the Conference to be held at the University of Limerick on 11 February next year.

Hosted by the Department of Politics and Public Administration and the Journalism Section, it will look at Fifteen years of FOI in the Republic.

The conference aims to bring together professionals working in Government departments and public service organisations; legislators; academics; the media and other interested parties to critically examine the legislation, arguably one of the most important laws on the Irish Statute Book.

The one day conference hopes to hear from a range of speakers on issues including the operation and impact of FOI in Ireland; policing and FOI in comparable jurisdictions; comparative political and legal studies of open government and ‘sunshine’ legislation; the impact of FOI and open government legislation on politics, public policy and public affairs; FOI and civil and human rights; and FOI and the media.
Interesting point: with a fees regime operating in the Republic, there seems to be a much greater emphasis on FOI as a tool for journalists rather than members of the public (as with the no-fee UK approach).

Not sure I can make it to the conference (hashtag: #foi15) but if I'm free I certainly will - registration is a very reasonable €40.

North and South

Ireland, North and South, is subject to two different Freedom of Information regimes. Here's a summary of the differences.

The Law

FOI Legislation in the Republic of Ireland

FOI Legislation in Northern Ireland

The Republic's FOI law is older: it came into effect in 1998 and was amended in 2003. The law that applies in Northern Ireland is the same one as in England and Wales (the law in Scotland is slightly different), which came into effect in 2005.


In the South, the law includes a right to personal information; in the North, personal information requests are dealt with under the Data Protection Act instead.


In the South, requests have to refer to the Act, and be made to the head of the organization; in the North, any request to a public authority can be considered as an FOI request.


The legislation in the Republic covers records; in the North, the legislation covers information contained within records - sometimes used as a non-too subtle way of holding back information. The Act in the North is also retrospective - it covers records from all periods - whereas in the South it covers only records produced after 1998 (except personal data).


The Southern legislation covers a narrower range of public authorities than the North. For instance, schools are not covered, whereas under the British Act they are.


A very big difference here. In the South, a fee must be paid for anything other than personal information requests, and there are additional fees for a review request and an appeal to the Information Commissioner. In Northern Ireland, all parts of the process are free. The existence of costs, especially for appeals, is a major disincentive to enforcing the Act.

There are other differences, and some interesting similarities - for instance, the British legislation has an exemption for royal correspondence, while the Irish legislation has a similar exemption for the President's correspondence. If I come across any other important differences, I will mention them in this blog.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

The Minister's picture

A tweet from Irish blogger NAMAwinelake:

led to the discovery that the website of the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport has a disclosure log:

DTTS Disclosure Log

It does seem a lot for a photograph of the minister. Why did it cost more to photograph Leo than the opening of the "new World Class coast Guard Centre"? [And why does 'coast' not warrant a capital letter?]

Friday, 9 November 2012

An interesting question

A close look at one of the What Do They Know requests for the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) brings up a fascinating question - without the answer.

On 21 May 2012, an enquirer called Ben Brown asked a series of questions. One, for instance, was about the overseas travel costs of the department for the period 2007-2011; a fairly routine kind of request. But this one had a backstory.

It turns out that this was not the first time it had been asked. On 23 May 2011, this question was asked in the Northern Ireland Assembly by the Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister. On 5 December he wrote about it on his blog, listing it as one of a series of questions in the Assembly which had not been answered despite the 10 working day limit specifed in the Assembly's standing orders. On 17 May this year, a press release on the party's website pointed out that there was still no answer available.

Mr Brown got no reply until 2 July, well past the limit allowed by the law. All the questions were refused, on a single basis: that they were identical to Assembly questions, and to answer them would breach section 36(2)(c) of the FOI Act - that it would prejudice the conduct of public affairs, because it would undermine the workings of the Assembly by disclosing 'unvalidated information'.

That strikes me as a very dubious response. Firstly, in principle an FOI request should be responded to without reference to what might have been asked in the Assembly; the two are separate information regimes. Secondly, it should be answered within 20 working days - which would have been adequate to respond in the Assembly as well. Mr Brown would have been within his rights to ask for a review and if that did not produce the information, take it to the Information Commissioner. Instead, he rephrased his questions and asked for this to be treated as a new request - a tactical mistake, I am afraid. He got a response on 31 October to say his request was 'still under consideration'.

This strikes me as a very poor approach from the OFMDFM. It's annoying to see requesters with a good case palmed off with this. I doubt very much that the Information Commissioner would let them away with it.

Incidentally, Mr Allister finally got his response on 21st September - and not a very helpful one: "Information is not held on the departmental accounting system at the level of detail requested and could only be provided at disproportionate cost." That may well be true, but if so the answer could have been provided in 1 working day!

A very poor showing

A very poor showing this week from the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister:

Stormont department took 320 days to answer FoI request

Apparently, the Office took nearly a year to answer the request and only responded to avoid being forced to do so in court. That's not very encouraging.

A look at the OFMDFM responses on the What Do They Know? website suggests this may not be an isolated incident. Several long-delayed responses, with excuses such as 'We are not in a position to respond to your request at this time as it is still under consideration.' Some poor-quality answers, too.

If so, it's not perhaps surprising: the Deputy First Minister appears not to be a fan of Freedom of Information, telling the Assembly members that 'There is absolutely no doubt that freedom of information allows people to abuse their access to information.'

I have submitted a request to find out how many requests have been received, and how many were overdue. Is this an isolated incident or is there a pattern? I think we should be told.