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Brian Pennington

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Freedom of Information Act

Clarification given on private email details and the Freedom of Information Act

The Information Commissioner has clarified the Freedom of Information Act’s regulations affecting the storing of personal email address.

Overview

  • FOIA applies to official information held in private email accounts (and other media formats) when held on behalf of the public authority. Such information may be exempt and will not necessarily have to be disclosed
  • It may be necessary to request relevant individuals to search private email accounts in particular cases. The occasions when this will be necessary are expected to be rare
  • Adherence to good records management practice should assist in managing risks associated with the use of private email accounts for public authority business purposes

The ICO recommends that, as a matter of good practice, public authorities establish procedures for dealing with such situations. These should outline the relevant factors to be taken into account in deciding whether it is necessary to ask someone to search their private email account for information which might fall within the scope of an FOI request the public authority has received. Relevant factors are likely to include:

  • The focus of the request, indicated by the words used by the requester
  • The subject matter of the information which falls within the scope of the request
  • How the issues to which the request relates have been handled within the public authority
  • By whom and to whom was the information sent and in what capacity (e.g. public servant or political party member)
  • Whether a private communication channel was used because no official channel was available at the time

Key points set out in Information Commissioners the guidance include:-

  • Where a public authority has decided that a relevant individual’s email account may include official information which falls within the scope of the request and is not held elsewhere, it will need to ask that individual to search their account
  • Where people are asked to check private email accounts, there should be a record of the action taken. The public authority needs to be able to demonstrate, if required, that appropriate searches have taken place
  • Although the main emphasis of the guidance is on official information held in private email accounts, public authorities should be aware that the law covers information recorded in any form
  • Public authorities should remind staff that deleting or concealing information with the intention of preventing its disclosure following receipt of a request is a criminal offence under section 77 of the Act
  • It is accepted that, in certain circumstances, it may be necessary to use private email for public authority business. There should be a policy which clearly states that in these cases an authority email address should be copied in to ensure the completeness of the authority’s records

Christopher Graham the Information Commissioner said:-

“It should not come as a surprise to public authorities to have the clarification that information held in private email accounts can be subject to Freedom of Information law if it relates to official business. This has always been the case, the Act covers all recorded information in any form.

“It came to light in September that this is a somewhat misunderstood aspect of the law and that further clarification was needed. That’s why we’ve issued new guidance today with two key aims first, to give public authorities an authoritative steer on the factors that should be considered before deciding whether a search of private email accounts is necessary when responding to a request under the Act. Second, to set out the procedures that should generally be in place to respond to requests. Clearly, the need to search private email accounts should be a rare occurrence; therefore, we do not expect this advice to increase the burden on public authorities.”

Related posts:

Information Commissioner gets tough with the largest fine for the breach of the Data Protection Act

The Freedom of Information Act. Power to the people or a tool for busy bodies?

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The Freedom of Information Act. Power to the people or a tool for busy bodies?

The Palace of Westminster at night as seen fro...

I understood the Freedom of Information Act was a mechanism for me to check what activities my government was doing under my name.

Then I came across a link containing the requests received by the government under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) during 2011 and I realised the FOIA has been hijacked by people who seem to be obsessed with the costs of wigs and whether there are any rats in the House of Commons – please insert joke here.

The entire list of 2011 requests is below and whilst they are not all concerned with trivia far too many are, so I decided to see if it was my translation of the FOIA that was wrong and tracked down the definition on the Parliament web site:

“Members of the public have a right to request access to information held by public authorities. The House of Commons and the House of Lords are separate public authorities. Requests for access to information should be directed to the relevant House which may hold the requested information.”

Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) The House of Commons and the House of Lords are required under the Freedom of Information Act to make information that they hold available to the public.

1. Information must be made available proactively via publication schemes that have been approved by the Information Commissioners Office (ICO).

2. Anyone is entitled to make a request for access to information held by either House that is not already publicly available. The requested information must be disclosed unless an exemption applies.

  • General information on the Freedom of Information Act •
  • Specific information regarding the House of Commons and the Freedom of Information Act
  • Specific information regarding the House of Lords and the Freedom of Information Act “

This means I am wrong, anyone can request information about anything no matter how trivial and no matter how costly gather and produce the information was.

Form the 2011 list there are potentially two dozen examples I would consider trivial or not worth the tax payers money to find out, for example

  • How much is spent on water and what brands are used. This disclosure is here.
  • Instances when pest control services have been requested. One of the several disclosures can be found here.
  • Details of expenditure on language courses. Surely avoiding the usual British thing of pointing and shouting is a good thing if we want our representatives to communicate with our European neighbours. This disclosure is here.

Some items were of interest:

  • On average 13o knives a year are confiscated from staff and visitors to Parliament. This  disclosure is here.
  • MPs who have not paid in full the money that the Legg report said they had to repay. This disclosure is here.

It is almost 50/50, in my opinion, between questions of merit with real public benefit and questions that only affect those with nosy habits or vested interests.

But see for yourself by reading the full list of FOIA Requests for 2011 below, newest first.

FOIA Disclosures October – December 2011 up to 23rd November 2011

  • Banqueting 2010-2011. Details of event and function bookings made by Members on behalf of outside organisations.
  • Claims of Racial Discrimination against the House of Commons administratio.n Details of racial discrimination cases brought against the House of Commons.
  • Details of 14 Tothill Street. Accommodation details of the parliamentary property at 14 Tothill Street
  • Grievances filed against the House of Commons administration by its staff. Details of grievances filed against the House of Commons since 2009.
  • Information about MyUK. Details of the MyUK online learning resource.
  • Items confiscated from staff and the public visiting the House of Commons. A list of items confiscated from members of staff and the public visiting the House of Commons from January 2009 to September 2011.
  • Management Board Papers 2007-2011. All agendas, minutes and related papers of the House of Commons Management Board.
  • Proposed building works on Cromwell Green and Speaker’s Green. Details of proposed building works on Cromwell Green and Speaker’s Green.
  • Select Committee expenses 2010-2011. Details of Select Committee expenses for 2010-2011
  • The amount paid by the House of Commons in relation to employment disputes with MPs staff. Total amount paid by the House of Commons in relation to employment disputes with MPs staff for the last 5 years.

Below is the list of FOI disclosures published by the House of Commons between July and September 2011:

  • Bars in the House of Commons. Details of bars within the House of Commons and their operating costs.
  • Compensation for criminal activity or personal injury. The cost of compensation paid to any victims of a criminal act or personal injury on the Parliamentary estate.
  • Compensation for criminal activity or personal injury. Compensation paid to staff and members of the public due to criminal activity or personal injury on the parliamentary estate.
  • Details of language classes provided to MPs and Parliamentary officials. Language classes provided to MPs and Parliamentary officials.
  • Details Of Mr Speaker Bercow’s official events since taking office. All official events held by Mr Speaker Bercow.
  • Details of spending on procurement cards issued to House of Commons’ staff, 2010 – 2011. Details of all spending on the cards for the last calendar year to May 2011
  • Ethnic monitoring in the House of Commons. Ethnic monitoring in the House of Commons
  • Expenditure on ceremonial garments. Details about ceremonial garments and the costs involved.
  • Financial details of parliamentary catering and retail service.s Revenue, profits, costs and subsidies for parliamentary catering and retail services.
  • House of Commons buildings used as office space. Details about House of Commons buildings primarily used as office space.
  • House of Commons post holders earning a basic salary of £65,000 or more to March 2011. House of Commons post holders earning a basic salary of £65,000 or more to March 2011
  • Inflation index used for MPs pensions. Which inflation index was used to determine the increase in MPs pensions.
  • Instances when pest control services have been requested. The number of times that pests have been found on the parliamentary estate.
  • IT equipment issued to Members 2011. Itemised breakdown of IT equipments issued to Members following 2010 election to 1 February 2011
  • Items reported stolen in the House of Commons in 2011. A list of all the items reported stolen in the House of Commons in 2011
  • MPs who have not paid in full in line with the Legg report. MPs who have not paid in full the money that the Legg report said they had to repay.
  • Reports into the leaning of Big Ben clock tower 2011. The effects of the Jubilee line extension on Big Ben clock tower.
  • Rules for MPs use of stationery. The rules for the use of stationery and pre-paid envelopes.
  • Select Committee expenditure on water. Details about the brand used and cost of water used by Select Committees.
  • Taxable benefit of the Speaker’s accommodation. The taxable benefit of the Speaker’s official residence.
  • The cost of recalling Parliament on Thursday August 11 2011. Some of the costs involved in the recall of Parliament on Thursday August 11.
  • The structural soundness of Portcullis House. Reports carried out into the structural soundness of Portcullis House.
  • The use of social networking media. The use of social networking media by MPs.

Below is the list of FOI disclosures published by the House of Commons between April and June 2011:

  • Cost and vintage of wines 2011. The vintage dates and purchase price of wine stocked in the House of Commons
  • Crimes reported 2009-2011. Details of all the crimes reported within the House of Commons from 2009-2011
  • Details about the trees in Portcullis House. Costs and ownership details of the trees in Portcullis House.
  • Duchy of Cornwall. The procedure determining whether the consent of the Duchy of Cornwall needs to be signified to a bill
  • Expenditure of The Clerk of The House 2011. Expenditure which has been made by the House of Commons relating to the Clerk of the House’s travel, subsistence, entertainment in an official capacity, and other professional and miscellaneous costs.
  • Former Members in receipt of an award from the Resettlement Grant. 1 April 2011 Table showing Former Members who left the House of Commons at the 2010 election and who are in receipt of an award from the Resettlement Grant and Former Members who have not been paid Resettlement Grant.
  • Former Members in receipt of an award from the Resettlement Grant. 5 April 2011 Amounts awarded to each former MP from the Resettlement Grant
  • Funding of the W4MP website. Details of the last 5 years of funding for the W4MP website.
  • House of Commons consultancy costs 2010-2011. How much The House of Commons spent on external consultants during the financial year 2010-2011
  • House of Commons recruitment costs 2010-2011. Recruitment costs for The House of Commons during financial year 2010-2011.
  • House of Commons Wine Stocks 2011. The top highest valued wines in the House of Commons stock and the total value.
  • List of wines stocked in the House of Commons wine cellar 2011. A list of all the wines currently stocked by the House of Commons
  • Members’ comments about IPSA. Members Survey of Services Comments on IPSA made by MPs responding to the Members Survey of Services 2010
  • MPs Expenses repayments 2011. List of Members of Parliament’s outstanding expenses repayments
  • Non British Nationals Research Assistants & Interns 2011. Number and nationality of non-British national researchers who have worked at the House of Commons over the last 15 years.
  • Number of security passes lost or stolen 2008-2011. The number of House of Commons security passes that have been lost or stolen.
  • Palace of Westminster – Condition Survey Report 2008-2010. A report on the outcome of a condition survey carried out over the period 2008-10 during which each space in the Palace of Westminster was subject to a visual inspection.
  • Pest control costs 2008-2011. The costs of pest control across the parliamentary estates from 2008-2011
  • Speaker’s accommodation 2011. Updated list of costs incurred to furnish the Speaker’s accommodation in the Palace of Westminster between 2009 and 2011.

Below is the list of FOI disclosures published by the House of Commons between January and March 2011:

  • Catering and retail prices 2011. Copies of restaurant menus, bar tariffs and other catering tariffs, souvenir price list
  • Catering sales and lists containing drink prices 2011. List of drinks, prices and sales in House of Commons bars and cafeterias
  • Details of all crimes reported in the Palace of Westminster 2008-2011. details of all crimes reported in the Palace of Westminster in the past three years
  • House of Commons Management Board official expenditure 2008-2010. an itemised breakdown of expenses claimed by each member of the Management Board for financial years 2008/09 and 2009/10
  • How much has been spent on 14 Tothill Street premises. The total amount spent on 14 Tothill Street until 28 February 2011.
  • Items reported as missing or stolen 2006 -2010 All items and their assumed monetary value which have been reported as missing or stolen from the Parliamentary Estate
  • Items reported stolen or missing from the Parliamentary Estate 2005-2011. A description of each item reported stolen and/or missing to the Crime and Investigation Unit from the Parliamentary estate
  • Lists of former Members of Parliament and Industry and Parliament Trust pass holders 2011. Names of pass holders – Former Members of Parliament and Industry and Parliament Trust as at 24 January 2011
  • Management Board Papers 2007-2011. Minutes, agendas and associated papers of House of Commons Management Board meetings since its establishment in October 2007
  • MPs and Lords replaced IT equipment. It equipment replaced since 2006
  • New Year’s Eve event 2010/11. Details of the New Year’s Eve event held at the House of Commons.
  • Overseas visits by Transport Committee members. Details of overseas visits by members of theTransport Committee from 01 January 2010 until 10 February 2011.
  • Parliamentary IT and Communication systems, office layouts and access Repayments made by Members 2010. The list of repayments of parliamentary allowances made by current and former Members of Parliament which were received between 19 December 2009 and 12th April 2010
  • Speaker’s Office Budget 2008-2011. Details of the Speaker’s Office Budget and Expenditure 2008-2011

The link to all the disclosures can be found here.

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Information rights should be embedded in schools, says ICO

The importance of data privacy and access to official information should be embedded in the formal education process, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) said today, as it launched a research project to explore ways of getting information rights issues covered in primary and secondary education systems in the UK.

The research project aims to ensure that young people are aware of the threats to their privacy and how to protect themselves, understanding the practical and legal safeguards that can help them. The project will also explore how young people can be encouraged to exploit the increasing availability of public information to their advantage.

The ICO has already led a number of initiatives aimed at reaching young people including a youth area on its website, a data protection DVD for secondary schools, a presence on online community games website Habbo Hotel, and an annual student brand ambassador campaign. However, expert opinion suggests that these initiatives have only limited chances of success unless the education of information rights becomes a more mainstream component of a young person’s formal education.

Research undertaken as part of law firm Speechly Bircham’s youth data protection campaign ‘i in online’ has found that, of over 4,000 young people questioned, 88% of secondary school respondents and 39% of primary school children have a profile on a social networking site.

Despite this, 60% of respondents hadn’t read the privacy policies of the networking sites they use, 32% didn’t know what a privacy policy was, and 23% said they didn’t know where to find it.

Jonathan Bamford, Head of Strategic Liaison at the ICO, said:

Young people today are growing up in an age where an ever increasing amount of information is held about them. It is vital that they understand their privacy rights and how to exercise them.

“We are also now seeing a big move towards transparency with more official information being released than ever before. The Freedom of Information Act is an important tool in holding decision makers to account. By being aware of their rights to access information, young people will feel more empowered to ask important questions about the things that matter to them – be it about their local leisure centre, or what the government is doing on university tuition fees or the environment.

“While we appreciate that some information rights issues are already covered in specific subjects encompassing IT and law, we want to see a move towards schools embedding information rights issues as part of the mainstream education process – giving young people skills that will serve them well throughout their adult lives.

The ICO is now inviting tenders for a research partner to help examine the current landscape and make recommendations.

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