UK government: Risk of reputational damage to investigators not an excuse for withholding data

The title is my interpretation of the implications of some announcements now appearing in British media. There are more forthcoming, but here is a place to start:

hands off FOIPress Gazette: Success for hands-off FoI campaign as government promises to leave the act alone

BBC News: Freedom of Information charges ruled out after review

BBC News: FOI commission: why has it surprised observers?

Background: I did not bother to make a FOI request for the PACE chronic fatigue  syndrome trial data because that wasn’t necessary. The PACE investigators had been foolish enough to publish a paper in PLOS One which involved a promise to make their data available upon request.

Nonetheless, the PACE investigators strategically decided to treat my request as having been made under FOI for two reasons. It would encumber our dispute with bureaucratic rules that would take months and lawyers to resolve. More importantly, the PACE investigators hoped they could take advantage of today’s much anticipated ruling that might restrict requests for data including mine. Pace Principal Investigator Peter White had written to Parliament and Simon Wessely’s Science Media Centre had organized a campaign to get other universities to use his letter as a template for their own 

King’s College London  announced the turning of my request into a FOI request and gave the following reasons for refusing me:

The university considers that there is a lack of value or serious purpose to your request. The university also considers that there is improper motive behind the request. The university considers that this request has caused and could further cause harassment and distress to staff.

… The university considers that the motive and purpose behind this request is polemical. The university notes the view of the Information Commissioner in decision FS50558352 that the request in that case was ‘more focussed on attacking and attempting to discredit the trial than in obtaining useful information on the topic.

… In conclusion, the university considers that when applying a holistic approach, this request can properly be considered to be vexatious.

Here are some key quotes from respectable media concerning the decision:

Press Gazette: Success for hands-off…

There will be no legal changes to the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act after a review of the legislation found it was “working well”, the Government has announced.

[The decision] It followed widespread fears that the Government Independent Commission on Freedom of Information would recommend new charges on the Act and new restrictions making it easier for public authorities to turn down requests. The Commission was partly prompted by concerns that the ministerial veto on FoI disclosures had been rendered impotent after it was overturned by The Guardian in the Supreme Court in the Prince Charles letters case.

Cabinet Office Minister Matt Hancock said: “After 10 years, we took the decision to review the Freedom of Information Act and we have found it is working well.

“We will not make any legal changes to FoI. We will spread transparency throughout public services, making sure all public bodies routinely publish details of senior pay and perks. After all, taxpayers should know if their money is funding a company car or a big pay off.”

On the public sector side: the Russell Group universities, Local Government Association and NHS authorities were among those arguing that the act was causing them an unnecessary “burden” and putting them at risk of “reputational damage”.

Bob Satchwell, executive director of the Society of Editors, said: “We have welcomed what appears to be a partial victory. Ministers have quite rightly backed away from restrictions to the Freedom of Information Act and have pledged to spread transparency throughout public services.

“A powerful case was made during the Review for extending the Act and cultural change is certainly required but that is difficult to achieve. We must maintain the campaign to change the default switch from tell them nothing unless forced to one where public bodies release information which the public is entitled to have unless there is an exceptional  reason for withholding it.”

BBC: Freedom of Information charges ruled out after review

How does FoI work?

  • Anyone can use the FoI Act to request information held by public bodies, such as the government, councils, schools, hospitals and the police
  • This can be done by letter, email or fax
  • Organisations must respond within 20 working days, although time extensions are allowed in certain circumstances
  • Information is usually provided for free, although there may be small charges for postage and photocopying
  • FoI requests may be rejected for various reasons, such as protecting national security or if dealing with the request would cost too much or take too much staff time

 

BBC: FOI commission: why has it surprised observers?

It is not yet clear how the government will respond to all the Commission’s recommendations. The Cabinet Office minister Matt Hancock says: “We will not make any legal changes to FOI”, so that would appear to rule out any legislation.

This would mean that many of the Commission’s ideas – both some promoting secrecy and others promoting openness – would not be implemented. Any change would then be limited to government guidance.

In which case the Freedom of Information Act would be left, as the Commission puts it, pretty much in its current state of “working well”.

Mr Blair has described himself as a “naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop” for introducing the law, saying: “There is really no description of stupidity, no matter how vivid, that is adequate. I quake at the imbecility of it.”

See also my blog posts:

Further insights into war against data sharing: Science Media Centre’s letter writing campaign to UK Parliament

King’s College London stalls some more, reiterating refusal to release the PACE trial data