OK, lets back up a bit here to the year 2000 and the reason the Freedom of Information Act 2000 was brought in – the Act was brought in so that the public would have a legal right to access promptly any information held by a public body except where this would be harmful. That includes the right to access information the public body or the people who work for it don’t want you to have because it is embarrassing or would take up a bit of their time to put together. That said let’s get back to December 2012 and to the UKBA’s reasons for withholding information from the public. UKBA have been asked for information about exclusion orders. I understand why it might not be appropriate to release names of individuals and I understand that it might not be appropriate to release information about ethnic groups where there are only a very small number of individuals, however UKBA’s response is ridiculous:

(my emphasis)

“We have considered whether to withhold only the names of the individuals concerned, but to release the rest of the information requested. However, we have concluded that the data relating to the years 2009-2011, most of the data relating to nationalities and the information on the basis of each individual’s exclusion order, relate to sufficiently small numbers of people that its release would breach the Data Protection Principles. This is because the information released could be linked to
particular individuals, or enable individuals to be identified if that information were cross referenced with other data that may be available via other sources. Although not all of the nationalities relate to very small numbers of people, we consider that the release of figures relating to some nationalities but not others, could similarly make it possible for someone, who already knows information relating to any of the other nationalities, to deduce information about individuals who have been excluded because they would know, from the omission of that nationality from our response, that they are from a nationality of which only a small number of people have been excluded.”

I am left wondering under what circumstances UKBA would release any aggregated statistical data whatsoever. Presumably, the UKBA officials would oppose the publication of the 99% literacy rate of the UK population because it would mean that I could be virtually certain that my next door neighbour was literate. To be honest I am surprised they even released the total figure of 32 because had I told my neighbour that I was the 100th person ever to receive an exclusion order and I got a special cake from UKBA he would now know I had lied. Presumably, UKBA cannot admit to not having a holding centre inside the Ritz Hotel in case someone happened to tell a friend they were in a holding centre and putting two and two together she deduces that he wasn’t staying at the Ritz. Seriously, though if you go down the UKBA route where does it end?

If you provide certain information to friends, neighbours and others it does make it more likely they can usually find out more information about you using other information in the public domain – that’s obvious and to a point you have to accept this.

Why can’t UKBA at least address the question: “In each case, what was the basis of the exclusion order?” for the 32 exclusion orders issued on a no names no nationalities basis?

The UK Border Agency’s highly questionable interpretation of FOI law is contrary to the spirit of transparency that is so badly needed in this country today.

The Information Commissioner’s formal ruling that the Royal Household is not legally required to answer requests for environmental information has today been criticised by a number of freedom of information experts and activists after it was found to contain unattributed extracts from three Wikipedia articles.

Background
Environmental information was requested from the Royal Household in March 2012. The Royal Household refused to answer the request on the basis that it was not a public authority despite receiving millions of pounds of public funding and being responsible for the upkeep of the state-owned Occupied Royal Palaces. The requester (@foimonkey on Twitter*) appealed this decision to the ICO in May 2012, who formally responded around nine months later.

Plagiarism from Wikipedia
The ICO’s formal Decision Letter contained unattributed extracts from three Wikipedia articles – the material from Wikipedia was not in quotes and was passed off as though it were the ICO’s original analysis of the legal and constitutional position of the Royal Household. This is particularly embarrassing for the ICO as the Decision Letter was signed off by the Deputy Information Commissioner with responsibility for FOI (Graham Smith) and given the nature of the ruling should have been looked at by the ICO’s high profile case unit.

The ICO may have broken copyright law by reproducing this material without attributing Wikipedia. Questions are now being asked about the use of unattributed sources in the ICO’s formal decisions.

Plagiarism from Royal Household website
The ICO’s Decision Letter also included a number of unattributed extracts from the Royal Household website again passed off as though it were the ICO’s own analysis. This demonstrates a lack of rigour by the ICO in reaching formal decisions and suggests that it taking statements made by the bodies it regulates at face value rather than acting as a robust and responsible regulator. The ICO’s conduct in this matter will be taken by many as a sign that it gives too much weight to the views of public bodies and is is too quick to dismiss the legitimate concerns of FOI requesters.

Absurd ruling
A number of other deficiencies in the ruling have been identified. One claim made by the ICO is particularly absurd and is likely to anger Monarchists and Republicans alike:

“the Commissioner is satisfied that the Sovereign does not exercise functions that are public in nature.”

(This despite the Queen’s role in the State Opening of Parliament, in awarding Peerages and honours and appointing ministers, as Head of the Armed Forces, I could go on…)

No mention of right to appeal
It has also been noted that the ICO has not notified the requester of their right to appeal the ruling – this failure is already the subject of a separate complaint to the ICO.

Conclusion
The Information Commissioner’s Office has a number of questions to answer about the quality of formal decisions and needs to take urgent action to regain the confidence of FOI requesters.


*well known to me and many who read my blog