What was the government’s response to the Independent Commission on Freedom of Information report?
I will start this by declaring some interests in the area of freedom of information. I am the appellant in case EA/2016/0033 (which is a case with the First Tier Tribunal (Information Rights) involving decision notice FS50596346). A further case involving an appeal to the First Tier Tribunal (Information Rights) involving decision notice FER0592270 was put in the post on Monday, but is yet to be received by the Tribunal. There are also numerous ICO decision notices that have been issued about FOI requests I have made.
Yesterday the government published the final report of the Independent Commission on Freedom of Information and there is a ministerial written statement here about it.
Introducing new fees for FOI requests (above those that can be already charged) has been ruled out partly because this would lead to a reduction in FOI requests from the media and others.
The ministerial statement also refers to updated codes of practice published. Interestingly one of the requirements of this new code of practice will be for public authorities with a hundred or more full-time equivalent employees to publish detailed statistics on how they deal with FOI/EIR requests.
I presume this will be something similar to the quarterly reports issued by central government which give a detailed account of how FOI and EIR requests have been dealt with over that timescale.
As the ministerial statement states “The publication of such data not only provides accountability to the public, but allows the Information Commissioner to identify and target poorly performing public authorities more effectively.”
Certainly once the new code of practice is published, a new requirement on local government bodies to publish this detailed information will provide an insight into how FOI/EIR requests are dealt with.
There is also going to be revised guidance on the application of section 14(1) (vexatious or repeated requests). The ministerial statement states that they expect this only to be used in “rare cases” and that “the ‘vexatious’ designation is not an excuse to save public officials embarrassment from poor decisions or inappropriate spending of taxpayers’ money”.
There is also going to be consideration by the government of whether to include a requirement to publish expenses and benefits in kind received by senior public sector executives. It seems FOI requests have been made for these, but turned down on data protection grounds.
As I’m the Appellant in the Tribunal case EA/2016/0033 (which isn’t classed as “active” yet (as “active” in such cases is defined as from the point when a hearing date is set), I can reveal that the only major development in that case is that Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council has been added as a party to the appeal as second respondent (originally the case was just between myself and the Information Commissioner).
I’m still awaiting the Information Commissioner’s response (due by the 17th March 2016) and Wirral Council’s response is due not more than 21 days after they receive the Information Commissioner’s response.
Once the Information Commissioner responds and Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council responds to the Information Commissioner’s response, I have up to 14 days to respond to their responses.
The Tribunal have asked all parties to notify them of any dates they are not available between 6th June 2016 and 29th July 2016, so I presume a hearing date will be set on some day between those two dates.
I’ve also been sent a copy of the practice note on closed material in information rights cases.
I’m sure there are those that could comment better than me about a practice direction that leads to hearings discussing the secret information while one of the parties to the appeal is excluded (secret hearings) and a guide to keeping information secret from one of the parties to the case.
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