back to article Freedom of Info at 10: Tony Blair's WORST NIGHTMARE

Although the Freedom of Information Act was passed in 2000, it didn't come into force until 1 January 2005, meaning we've had just about 10 years of FoI – as the Information Commissioner's Office was keen to point out in a minor PR blizzard. That load of celebratory snippets* included such worthy-but-dull moments as the first …

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Why?

You read his autobiography? Why? The chances of finding the truth in that are paper thin.

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Re: Why?

True, but it's probably a comedy goldmine!

And where else will you read him admit what a total nincompoop he is?

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Re: Why?

If Bliar didn't want to have problems from the Freedom of Information Act, he shouldn't have told so many lies!

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Why?

He thinks he's a nincompoop for introducing more/some/any transparency in government. Typical Blair

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Re: Why?

Woah... I admire your optimism - you are giving a non-negative chance to finding truth in it. I would not.

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Meh

Re: Why?

"He thinks he's a nincompoop..."

Which show he wasn't always wrong.

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With Apoligies to Keith Waterhouse

Blair === B Liar (Billy Liar)

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Re: Why?

Total nincompoop... Total Cnut more like

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Burden

I work with a poor colleague who, among other duties, has to respond to FoI requests. Some of these requests are simple to serve. We have the reports, it's a straightforward public interest case, no problem. Others require a tortured process of pulling together separate data, various bits of separate reports and it's all a bit trivial in terms of the value of the information released. Takes many people away from their day jobs for a long time and is disruptive to the service.

Then you get the out and out fishing expeditions from journalists just asking deliberately controversial questions and asking for our data on it. My colleague then has to try to find any info we have related to the ridiculous question, at least as involved as the previous example, and then must prove we actually don't have anything to back up the insinuation and yes we really can't help, no we're not hiding anything.

FoI. Fantastic and I'm glad we have it. What a fucking pain in the are to comply with, though.

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Re: Burden

FoI. Fantastic and I'm glad we have it. What a fucking pain in the are to comply with, though.

I work(ed) in public sector organisations covered by FoI and made FoI requests myself, so have seen both sides of the process.

I think that FoI should be a first step in making the public sector more open and transparent about their workings. But the political masters, instead, seem intent on trying to cripple FoI.

The public sector need to be constantly reminded that they're working on behalf of the public and are not above the law.

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Re: Burden

So why wasn't all that info public anyway?

Apart from the launch codes to their nuclear arsenal how much info does the local council have that is secret? Here even the salaries of all public employees are published, by name, on their website

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Re: Burden

Absolutely. If the information is all public, there is no burden whatever on the council to draw the information together to satisfy a particular request.

If the information can be released under FoI, why isn't it released by default?

If there is no specific reason to keep it confidential, why is it not made public?

If there is no bureaucratic process of FoI compliance involved, but the information is simply posted to the web as standard operating procedure, the costs promptly become trivial.

Any analysis that the public and the press want to do, they can do themselves at zero cost to the council.

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Re: Burden

Why wasn't all that info public? Because we have better things to do with our time and taxpayers money than curate and herd data that doesn't have a direct bearing on delivering the service and releasing it pre emptively on the offchance someone might have a separate motivation of interest.

Mortality rates for a hospital? That's already collated as BAU so that's ready to publish. What that hospital has spent on cleaning up spills from the coffee machine in the canteen? Technically public money so according to your logic that should also be pre emptively published. But why the hell would a hospital collate that data in the first place unless specifically asked?

Also, doing so would take an army of number crunching admin staff and nobody has money to spend on that luxury.

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Re: Burden

So don't collate it - just publish

You collect when councillors turn up for meetings, in order to pay them attendance allowance, you collect how they voted on issues, you already put it all in a spreadsheet.

At the moment you then spend money on protecting it, keeping it firewalled, having access controls to stop unauthrorized staff from seeing it - and then spend more money fighting FoI requests when somebody submits one.

So everything that there isn't a law demanding it be keep secret (like medical reports on the children being abused in your council's care homes) goes on a public sharepoint site.

The only reason to keep everything secret by default is to hide cockups or criminal conspiracies,

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Re: Burden

But why the hell would a hospital collate that data in the first place unless specifically asked?

All that FoI requires is for the body to release data it already has. FoI does not require a body to collect extra data. In my experience, some people in public sector use the threat of FoI as a reason to NOT collect data.

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Re: Burden

Why wasn't all that info public? Because we have better things to do with our time and taxpayers money than curate and herd data that doesn't have a direct bearing on delivering the service and releasing it pre emptively on the offchance someone might have a separate motivation of interest.

This comes back to what I said in the first place: Change the ethos of public sector so that by default you make data open & public. If you start with that mindset, then there is little cost to actually making the data public. But the cultural shift from closed minded public sector to a more open public sector is massive and won't be achieved over night. This shift is harder if the political masters are hell bent on weakening FoI.

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Re: Burden

Boohoo doing your job properly is hard.

Suck it up and remember you work for us, not the other way around.

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Windows

Re: Burden

"Some of these requests are simple to serve. We have the reports, it's a straightforward public interest case, no problem. Others require a tortured process of pulling together separate data, various bits of separate reports and it's all a bit trivial in terms of the value of the information released."

Can you not publish a catalogue of available reports? Metadata so people can craft queries that you can provide easily?

Hungry journalists can always do the cross referencing themselves...

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Re: Burden

I agree it is a burden - but a huge percentage of the requests form information that any organisation should be collating on a regular basis as part of that old business technique called management.

Fallen by the wayside in so many places but its really useful to people without MBAs and agendas - funnily enough the last place I saw it was working for a council but they got rid of it before I left.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Burden

"You collect when councillors turn up for meetings, in order to pay them attendance allowance, you collect how they voted on issues, you already put it all in a spreadsheet."

That's easily fixed. You ask the councillors involved "Would you like to be paid, OR would you like this information to be kept confidential? You can only have one or the other."

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Re: Burden

Another reason to keep everything secret would be the handing out of contracts to private companies for doing public service work.

After all, if the details of the bids of 6 different building companies to do housing maintainence for council properties were made public and mysteriously the most expensive was picked each time... I think we'd start to suspect something.

Keep that all secret and the backhanders will keep flowing to the right people for putting the work the right way.

What else could explain Portsmouth's millenium tower being priced at 10million quid and taking 5 yrs to build, yet somehow it ended up at 17 million and took 10 yrs ......

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Re: Burden

So everything that there isn't a law demanding it be keep secret... goes on a public sharepoint site.

Thus absolutely guaranteeing that no one can ever find it.

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Re: Burden

Attendance allowance was abolished sometime in the 1990s. Councillors get a (no adjective at all) allowance, which is to all intents and purposes, and is considered by HMRC as, a salary. A whopping £12k-£14k a year on the biggest authorities, but it is not tied to attendance - which means that for many councillors it works out at about £4 an hour.

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Probably because

you use MS Word etc and keep a horde of unconnected documents.

Building an information system or knowledge system would have been a good first step.

But MS looked to people buying things as thoguh they understood it, and Word docs look to the administrata as though they are useful pictures of documents...

The coffee machine cleaning probably isn't management information, and won't be collected never mind collating. Cleaning costs for the canteen, possibly, cleaning costs overall certainly, in whatever degree of detail the management of the hospital and their outsourced cleaner management company find useful in setting and paying bills, certainly is, and it seems likely it would be better managed if this is information kept in an organised form and thus trivially available.

Is it more or less than other hospitals? Is the result cleaner or dirtier? THat sounds like interesting tuff to know.

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Re: Burden

"Thus absolutely guaranteeing that no one can ever find it."

Thanks for raising that - I've long criticised fancy pants databases that cost millions and are impossible for ordinary users.

I did have one victory in a small organisation once, releasing documents in their original formats, only to find they had locked off copying ability. Sure, OCR and all that, but kinda defeated the purpose.

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Re: Burden

"Another reason to keep everything secret would be the handing out of contracts to private companies for doing public service work."

Actually that's all covered by foi _AND_ the companies doing public service work (either under contract, or in lieu of public services doing it(*)) also fall under foi rules.

(*) That also includes trades disciplinary groups such as the medical council. FOI covers a lot of stuff and the beureaucrats fight tooth&nail to avoid it. - much of what ASA and Phonepayplus do is arguably under FOI jurisdiction. (The ICO is waiting for more complaints about PPP refusing FOI requests as they'd like to push the issue)

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Re: Burden

"only to find they had locked off copying ability."

Bzzt, not allowed. You should have complained (loudly) to the ICO about that.

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Re: Burden

Dear Sir Sham Cad

Your comment illustrates an attitude that exemplifies exactly why FoI requests need to be respected. It is, after all, the law. Perhaps your colleague's employer would like to skip around other inconvenient, burdensome and time consuming legislation like employment and PAYE.

While it "Takes many people away from their day jobs for a long time and is disruptive to the service" it may have been extremely helpful to people in Rotherham and other rotten boroughs if FoI requests could have been issued to learn about the parlous state of protection for young people. Who is to judge whether "it's a straightforward public interest case". Perhaps the very people who do not want their dealings to be exposed?

Yes, freedom can be a costly business and in other parts of the world, a lethal one. But in my view it is a cost worth bearing. And would become less expensive if those responsible for administering it did so more efficiently by getting on with the job an co-operating with other agencies.

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Re: Burden

A little-understood aspect of the FoI was that public bodies were supposed to move towards pro-active publication (on their "publication scheme" - pretty much a websitee, or maybe a database server) of as much of their data as was possible - anything without a reason to keep it secret was supposed to end up public automatically. Unfortunately, there were no teeth in the act to support this move, and the ICO's office ws actually screwed by the FoI Act because it expanded their responsibilities but they've never had the resources to deal with both FoI and Data Protection properly.

As for the main article, all politicians are in favour of FoI when in opposition. They all lose that zeal sometime after coming into office. The longer in opposition, the longer the zeal takes to wear off. Almost all countries with FoI have adopted it under a government from a usually opposition party, or as part of a coalition agreement involving smaller parties.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Burden

Thanks for the insight. Doesn't that seem to point out to a rather badly written (or badly implemented) law, rather than an inadequate principle, though?

Thanks also for the article. I am involved in a bit of a tug of war with a certain government agency who have been caught telling porkies. I considered getting additional proof of this via the FOI Act, but may end up going a different route instead.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Burden

Interesting minds ask which one?

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Re: Burden

I'm not sure how much paid for time should be spent on giving details of a local councils plans for handling zombie invasions.

On the other hand having dealt with some slippery contractors quoting to me in the private sector in the past, I am not sure how much detail of winning contracts I would have liked to pass on to the losers to help them shaft me in the future.

However, as a start point they could have tried to meet the requirements in the specification. A point that I was happy to pass onto them!

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Re: Burden

"I'm not sure how much paid for time should be spent on giving details of a local councils plans for handling zombie invasions."

The exact amount of paid for time that should be spent developing such plans. None.

It's easy - if the public paid for the time a job took to do, the public has the right to know exactly who did what, why, how, when and with whom. Small number of exceptions (physical threat to life / limb, national security - properly defined - etc). The rest? Publish it. All of it.

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pass on to the losers to help them shaft me in the future.

In my experience you only get stiffed if you write the contract badly in the first place :-)

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Re: pass on to the losers to help them shaft me in the future.

Badly written contracts?

Isn't that the SOP for both Local and National Governments (of all types?)

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Re: Burden

"Doesn't that seem to point out to a rather badly written (or badly implemented) law, rather than an inadequate principle, though?"

Surprisingly, the law is quite well written, BUT.

1: There's no right of private action - everything has to go through the ICO

2: The ICO is vastly underfunded (deliberately so in many people's opinion) so it has a great deal of difficulty dealing with the complaints it gets

3: As with parliamentary expenses, an org who _really_ don't want to release info can make it drag out for years. The most common tactic is to not respond to requests, then respond and not give the data, then challenge the ICO and cause the entire cycle to drag out to 6-8 months in the hope that the requester will go away.

4: non-govt orgs and trade associations acting under contract or in lieu of govt regulators come under the FOI, but only after the secretary of state looks at the case and declares that they do - the closest this has come so far was ACPO voluntarily agreeing to come under FOI and it's believed that was done to prevent legal precedents being set.

5: There are people in the ICO who will simply reject complaints without bothering to look at their merits and it frequently takes several rounds of dealing with the ICO to get them to take on a complaint in the first place. As with most govt departments it's impossible to fire such people and their sole reason for existing seems to be to impede action rather than facilitate it.

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Re: pass on to the losers to help them shaft me in the future.

You can also get stiffed if some numpty inside the organisation decides to set target figures so low that no reputable company will bother tendering, then forces you to accept a clearly inadequate tender in order to avoid having to redo the exercise.

Been there, done that, spent 8 years cleaning up afterwards.

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Pirate

Bureacrats Are a Sociological Class

In case you haven't noticed, governments are not run according to the rule book. Bureaucrats are a psychology whose real job is to protect one's territory and claw one's way to the top. These Mandarins, Priests and Palace Guards will lie, cheat and steal over the office coffee fund. It's class warfare whose Prime Directive is to not attract attention.

I got a taste of this years ago in the USN when we were encouraged to balloon our requisitions during the year end audit, i.e., do not show evidence of frugality, spend the departmental budget to the max, so that we would not be subject to budgetary cuts. This wasn't even done surreptitiously, everyone in my department played along because it was the CULTURE.

This CULTURE rewards "team" playing and will utterly destroy any human possessed of a conscience. Just look at the recent fates of whistleblowers under Obama, an administration possessed of an extreme sense of vulnerability and total resistance to transparency, to hell with the trust in campaign promises and party platform. This sense of vulnerability and overreaction to imagined threat is founded upon the GUILT that every bureaucrat carries just under the surface, GUILT that they are capable of tossing their mother under a sewer grate if "necessary".

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Re: Bureacrats Are a Sociological Class

I got a taste of this years ago in the USN when we were encouraged to balloon our requisitions during the year end audit, i.e., do not show evidence of frugality, spend the departmental budget to the max, so that we would not be subject to budgetary cuts.

I'm afraid that it affects all aspect of public spending. In the UK I'm encouraged to spend all my budget before year end otherwise it suggests I inflated my initial budget request. I even get asked if I can help spend other department's under-spend...

The system is a joke.

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Re: Bureacrats Are a Sociological Class

I've met "spend your budget this year or get it cut next year" in private business too.

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Vic
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Re: Bureacrats Are a Sociological Class

In the UK I'm encouraged to spend all my budget before year end otherwise it suggests I inflated my initial budget request

This extends even to contingency planning - councils put aside a chunk of money each year in case the roads need salting/gritting. If the winter is mild, the salt money doesn't need spending.

But if the budget is unused, it will be seen as superfluous, and cut next year. So to protect the contingency plan, it gets spent on assorted traffic projects in early Spring.

Disclosure: I used to be a beneficiary of such spending :-)

Vic.

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Which law?

Blair wrote.

"You idiot. You naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop," Blair wrote of himself in his autobiography A Journey last year, recalling his adoption of the law, which took effect in 2005. "There is really no description of stupidity, no matter how vivid, that is adequate. I quake at the imbecility of it."

He could equally have been writing about the Yuman Rights Act passed by his Labour government.

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Re: Which law?

Remember his wife is a human rights lawyer - she is his wife and his Governments chief advisory on that (keep it it the family aka Bill Gates). That says it all -> introduce laws that his wife gets works from -> get more protection for human rights that his Wife can defend -> ££££££

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Which law?

Except that actually Mrs. Blair, I believe, spent more time working for the government trying to show why certain people should not have certain rights.

Human rights lawyer != on the good side.

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Re: Which law?

>>"Remember his wife is a human rights lawyer"

That's like a midwife being married to King Herod.

Though in reality, I don't think she does much for actual human rights. Maybe on the odd occasion they don't conflict with her husband's business interests.

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Each time I see Blair walking around free I wonder...

Why is it that we let our leaders get away with murder?

How many people working for our armed services have been sacrificed at Blair's altar of 'good versus evil'?

When I look at Iraq, it makes me a little ill that we helped it become what it is. (I.e. a warzone for the next 30 years, probably)

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Re: Each time I see Blair walking around free I wonder...

Like it or lump it, its because you have no choice in the matter. Simple as that really. Why are you surprised?

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Stop

Re: lucki blowhard Re: Each time I see Blair walking around free I wonder...

"Like it or lump it, its because you have no choice in the matter....." Puh-leeeeeeese, stop with the perpetual victimhood! "It's all so unfair, I have no legal recourse, I'm just kept powerless" - seriously? If you and your chums feel that strongly then take out a private prosecution. The fact of the matter is all the wacky activists love throwing what are usually nothing more than nuisance suits at political figures, but somewhere along the line they usually have to squeak past someone with legal knowledge, and no-one with any legal experience would sign off on trying to get Blair indicted for "war crimes" or any other nonsense. I think it is that you prefer the idea of whining about your fantasy of how "downtrodden" you are rather than having to deal with legal realities.

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Happy New Year

Subsequent police witch-hunts against journalists have led to a situation where it would be impossible to expose such widespread criminality among the political class ever again. A handful of MPs and peers were jailed as a result of the scandal. …. Gareth Corfield

Oh please, Gareth, you cannot be serious. Whatever you have been smoking/are you thinking.

Oh, and Tony Blair has a great deal more to fear and be rightly worried about than just Dr Kelly coming back from the dead. As have the Chilcot Inquirers, too, methinks. Whatever is their problem and pathetic excuse for such an obvious delay and perversion of natural justice in providing the public with a honest conclusion?

Can’t fault Tony for the true realisation of his self though …. an idiot, a naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop.

Strange that frank admission does not seem to be helping Sir John Chilcot, Baroness Usha Prashar, Sir Roderick Lyne, Sir Martin Gilbert and Sir Lawrence Freedman on their nice little earner?

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Re: Happy New Year

That comment was lucid and understandable. Who are you and what have you done with amanfrommars?!

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