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  • Politician charged over DPA offences

    Posted on July 14th, 2009 admin No comments

    The politician who drew attention to a child abuse scandal on Jersey has been charged under the Data Protection Act.

    Stuart Syvret, 44, was charged the day after the island’s authorities announced on Tuesday that no action would be taken against 11 people accused of child sex offences.

    The charges relate to articles written on his internet blog [link] , one of which allegedly contained personal details taken from a confidential police report. Mr Syvret, a senator in the island’s government, was arrested in April when his home was raided by officers who interviewed and released him pending further inquiries. He was called back to police headquarters on last week and is due to appear at Jersey Magistrates’ Court later this month.

    Mr Syvret has been an outspoken critic of the way the island’s establishment has dealt with allegations of abuse at children’s homes dating back to the 1970s and 1980s. In 2007 he was dismissed from his post as Minister for Health and Social Services after claiming that abuse cases were being covered up.

    A police investigation into the Haut de la Garenne children’s home, where hundreds of former residents claimed that they were sexually and violently assaulted, has so far led to charges against two people.

    Mr Syvret, who called for both an independent inquiry and for court cases to be held in Britain, had been accused by the former Chief Minister, Frank Walker, of damaging Jersey’s reputation. After his arrest in April he said the action against him was politically motivated and he was considering legal action against the police.

    Mr Syvret denies he has done anything wrong and says his actions were in the public interest.

    He said: “I can’t see the charges standing up before any competent and just court. Whether there is the faintest chance of getting that on Jersey remains to be seen.”

  • Making a meal of a meta-request

    Posted on July 13th, 2009 admin 1 comment
    Will it be worth the wait to see what's inside?

    Will it be worth the wait to see what's inside?

    The saga of the so-called meta-request goes on….and on…. and on.

    In January 2007 I asked a question of the Home Office about the way it had been treating my requests as I had evidence that it dealt with mine differently from the general public. This is a breach of its responsibilities under the Freedom of Information Act in that it should be “applicant blind” when it deals with requests.

    My request was refused, I appealed and the appeal was thrown out as the information was deemed to be covered by Section 36 (Prejudice to the effect conduct of public affairs).

    I took the case to the Information Commissioner who ruled in my favour and then the Home Office appealed against that decision, linked up with the Ministry of Justice, and took the case to the Information Tribunal.

    At the Tribunal the Government tried to argue that meta-requests - the process where somebody asks questions about the way their question has been handled - were in some way an abuse of process.

    This argument was rejected by the Tribunal and I sat at home waiting for the 1,250page bundle of documents to arrive in the post.

    But that wasn’t the end of the matter and the Government appealed the decision to the High Court where a hearing took place earlier this year.

    That decision has now been announced and again it was ruled that meta-requests are NOT an abuse of process and should be dealt with like any other Freedom of Information application.

    However, there is one big BUT. The High Court has allowed the Home Office the opportunity to go through the material to see if any other exemptions apply to it. For good measure it is now claimed that although S.36 does not apply to it the Tribunal will have to rule if section 31 (law enforcement), section 35 (formulation of government policy), section 40 (personal information), section 42 (legal professional privilege), and section 43 (commercial interests).

    So to summarise, two and a half years after I asked the question the Home Office has now been forced to do what it should have done all along - look at the question and see if it could and should answer it. Because of it’s ineptitude it has wasted hundreds of hours and thousands of pounds, essentially because it thought it shouldn’t have to answer my question.

    Here is a link to a question I have asked on WhatDoTheyKnow asking for the figures of legal costs associated with the case both for the Information Commissioner [link] and the Home Office [link].

    Here are copies of the decision in this case by the [ICO], the [Tribunal] and the [High Court].

  • Freedom of Information? That’ll be a tenner please

    Posted on July 11th, 2009 admin 3 comments

    I thought that some of you would like to see a copy of a letter I received from Dorset Probation Service recently. I accept that they may not be used to dealing with that many Freedom of Information requests, but one would have thought the name of the Act might have given them a clue.

    As you can see they have decided that I should be paying a £10 ‘administrative charge’. There is no explanation of how the Chief Officer has arrived at this figure, in fact I haven’t yet been told they actually hold the information I had asked for.

    What would the Information Commissioner’s Office make of this letter? How should I respond? Your comments please.

    UPDATE: Thank you all for your comments. I’m glad to see you were as outraged as I was. I sent them a letter over the weekend and I had a voicemail message yesterday apologising for the mistake - so I think we should forgive and forget.


  • The Dark Arts of Hacking and Blagging

    Posted on July 10th, 2009 admin No comments

    A more traditional way of intercepting information

    A more traditional way of intercepting information

    When the outgoing Information Commissioner said Data Protection was no longer considered ‘nerdy’ did he realise just how soon it would vault into the ‘sexy’ category.




    With the latest row over phone hacking we have all the traditional ingredients of a front page scoop: money, power, celebrity and for good measure a bit of conspiracy thrown in as well.

    Before I launch into my views on the topic I should declare an interest in that I work for the News of the World as many of my Freedom of Information stories have appeared in the pages of the country’s No.1 selling paper. However, just so that you can rest easy I have never done anything illegal.

    My beef with the current moral outrage that is gathering to oust the former News of the World editor from his job and probe the murky affairs of the media is simple – the vast majority of the information is not new.

    A large chunk of the detail being debated across the airwaves now was in fact uncovered by the Information Commissioner in 2006 and published in a detailed report.

    Also a distinction has to be made between ‘blagging’ and ‘hacking’. The former is the process by which somebody will either pose as somebody they are not or hire a private detective to pose as that person with the aim of teasing personal details out of a third party. This activity, although many might frown upon it is not illegal, IF it can be justified by a public interest defence.

    Hacking on the other hand is illegal and is the criminal means by which people will tap into the recorded voice messages on a third party’s phone.

    The current furore centres on details that were thrown up in the wake of case of News of the World reporter Clive Goodman and his private eye associate who were jailed for their part in hacking into a member of the Royal Family’s mobile. It was the extra detail in the court papers of this case that led to Gordon Taylor bringing his private action against the same newspaper which the Guardian have reported was settled out of court for £700,000.

    Those journalists involved in hacking should be worried - as Clive Goodman’s two-month stretch in prison should prove.

    But the details uncovered by the Information Commissioner in a separate case – called Operation Motorman – seem to be getting mixed in with the hacking allegations.

    In that case the Information Commissioner discovered following a raid at a private detective’s office the scale of ‘blagging’ that was being carried out. He even produced a menu of the personal information that could be extracted:

    Vehicle check at the DVLA - £150 - £200

    Ex-directory telephone number - £65 - £75

    Checks at the DVLA - £150 - £200

    Criminal Records check - £500

    Getting the address linked to a tele no - £75


    Also uncovered in this raid were the links to publications that had paid for blagging. Below is a table showing the publication, the number of transactions and the number of its journalists involved.


    Daily Mail                             952         58

    Sunday People                  802         50

    Daily Mirror                        681         45

    Mail on Sunday                                 266         33

    News of the World          228         23

    Sunday Mirror                   143         25

    Best Magazine                  134         20

    Evening Standard             130         1

    The Observer                    103         4

    Daily Sport                          62           4

    The People                         37           19

    Daily Express                      36           7

    Weekend (Daily Mail)    30           4

    Sunday Express                                29           8

    The Sun                                24           4

    Closer Magazine               22           5

    Sunday Sport                     15           1

    Night and Day (MoS)      9              2

    Sunday Business News 8              1

    Daily Record                       7              2

    Saturday (Express)          7              1

    Sunday Mirror Mag         6             1

    Real Magazine                   4              1

    Woman’s Own                  4              2

    The Sunday Times           4              1

    Daily Mirror Magazine    3              2

    Mail in Ireland                   3              1

    Daily Star                             2              4

    The Times                           2              1

    Marie Claire                        2              1

    Personal Magazine          1              1

    Sunday World                    1              1


    As you can see the News of the World is not the worst ‘offender’ and with over 100 deals the Guardian’s sister paper the Observer is obviously no stranger to these techniques.

    The following is an extract from the Information Commissioner’s report into the probe:

    The secondary documentation seized at the same premises consisted of the detective’s own hand-written personal notes and a record of work carried out, about whom and for whom. This mass of evidence documented literally thousands of section 55 offences, and added many more identifiable reporters supplied with information, bringing the total to some 305 named journalists.

    Just as revealing were the interviews conducted with individuals whose privacy had been violated. As one would expect, they included a number of celebrities and others in the public eye such as professional footballers and managers, well-known broadcasters, a member of the royal household and others with royal connections, and a woman going through well-publicised divorce proceedings.

    But they also included people caught up in the celebrity circuit only incidentally, such as the sister of the partner to a well-known local politician and the mother of a man once linked romantically to a Big Brother contestant.

    Among this last group was a mother whose show-business daughter had featured in a number of lurid press stories about her private life and whose family was subject to intense media probing. Details of the mother’s telephone calls and cars owned appeared among the private detective’s ledgers and records of financial transactions.

    A few of the individuals caught up in the detective’s sights either had no obvious newsworthiness or had simply strayed by chance into the limelight, such as the self-employed painter and decorator who had once worked for a lottery winner and simply parked his van outside the winner’s house. This group included a greengrocer, a hearing-aid technician, and a medical practitioner subsequently door-stepped by a Sunday newspaper in the mistaken belief that he had inherited a large sum of money from a former patient.

    A number of those interviewed reported subsequent media intrusion into their lives, after their details had been passed on to the press. All were emphatic that they had not willingly supplied information about themselves, nor would they have consented to its release.

    And what happened to the private detective in this case – did the full weight of the law come down on him – oh yeah he got an 18-month community order with a provision he attends counselling sessions to combat his drinking (link to Daily Telegraph article).

    Below is a cut-out-and-keep guide to blagging which was reproduced in the Information Commissioner’s report.


    British Rail/London Transport Lost Property Blag

    This is to discover what connection the person you are ringing up has with the person under investigation OR what the address of the person under investigation is from friends and/or relatives.

    You can therefore use this blag to discover the nature of a relationship.

    You go on as British Rail (or London Transport) Lost Property

    In this example the telephone number you wish to establish connection with is 081-450 4321 and belongs to Mr Wilson.

    4321 Hello.

    Agent/BR  Hello. Is Mr Wilson there please?

    [Or if you only have the telephone number you go straight onto the bit where you explain who you are and why you want the information

    “Hello, it’s British Rail lost property here...”]

    Respondent …Yes, speaking. Who’s calling?

    Agent/BR British Rail Lost Property. I’m sorry to bother you but we’ve had a [Wallet, Purse, Filofax etc] handed into our office belonging to a Mr [Give subject’s name] but no address. We wish to return the item as quickly as possible. We did, however, find your [name and telephone] number in the diary in Mr [Subject] wallet/handbag so we assumed you knew Mr [Subject] and could therefore give us any useful information that could help get this back to Mr [Subject]. [DO NOT ask directly for the address or phone number as this is too direct].

    [At this stage they may offer you a phone number or address or tell you where they can contact the subject. Remember as you’re supposedly handling someone’s personal affects for security, you should ask what their relationship is to your subject. Be polite. Also as nobody is familiar with BR lost property they would have no idea how the department works. Therefore a call back can be easily avoided. Tell them “that you presently have 3 calls on hold, and you need to sort it out now”].

    Remember if you need other info make light conversation on the subject that you’re interested in.

    Don’t forget that all you’re supposedly trying to do is to return lost property.

    So I would suggest that seeing as ‘blagging’ is not illegal if journalists can claim a public interest defence the only way this current furore is going to move on is if more evidence of the illegal practice of ‘hacking’ can be uncovered. And remember always be wary when BR Lost Property ring up with your celebrity lover’s lost belongings.


  • Wrong, wrong, wrong..

    Posted on July 9th, 2009 admin No comments
    Who was supposed to be packing the passport?

    Who was supposed to be packing the passport?

    The Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) have been given a public rebuke from the Information Commissioner’s Office for taking 100 days to carry out an internal review relating to a request concerning Cherie Blair.

    The applicant had asked for information the MPS held on an incident when the former Prime Minister’s wife turned up at Heathrow without her passport and then contacted No.10 to get the document couriered to the airport. (link)

    Initially the MPS had refused the request for information claiming it was covered by S.24 (National Security), S.31 (Law enforcement) and S.38 (Health and Safety).

    But after the Information Commissioner got involved the MPS admitted that the limited information it did hold - a short press statement - was not covered by the exemptions.

    However, the Commissioner explored the case and found the complainant had asked the MPS for an internal review on 16 March 2006 and had to wait more than five months, until 21 August 2006 for the MPS to confirm its refusal.

    In the decision notice the MPS is taken to task for:

    • Belatedly finding information that should have been disclosed,
    • Only undertaking a thorough search for information after the intervention of the Commissioner,
    • Taking 90 days to issue its initial refusal notice,
    • Incorrectly stating that the information was covered by three exemptions, and failing to state which subsections of the exemptions it thought were applicable,
    • Taking over a 100 days to carry out an internal review which upheld its own incorrect view, which was later retracted after the intervention of the Commissioner.

    The Information Commissioner said in his decision notice that the MPS breached Section 1, Section 10 and Section 17 of the Act.

    He said: “The Commissioner remains concerned that it took over 100 working days for an internal review to be completed.”

  • Parking ticket e-mail row

    Posted on July 9th, 2009 admin No comments
    If you get a parking ticket count to 10 before you do anything...

    If you get a parking ticket count to 10 before you do anything...


    A councillor who called council staff “blind and stupid” has issued an apology after the contents of his offensive e-mail were released under the Freedom of Information Act.

    The Basingstoke Gazette has reported on the incident relating to Conservative councillor Stephen Gorys, who was sparked to write the e-mail after a council employee gave him a parking ticket while on council business.

    His e-mail to the leader of Hart District Council said: “Has the management and staff gone completely blind and stupid?

    “Some idiot parking attendant has given me a ticket OBVIOUSLY without looking properly.

    “You need to seriously get a GRIP of this department before we councillors are forced to sort them out.

    “Oh, by the way, if anyone takes offence at this then bloody good job too. I expect NO LESS than a grovelling apology and not some half-arsed letter basically blaming me.”

    Unfortunately for Coun Gorys it would appear the e-mail has had the opposite effect and it is he who has had to issue an apology.

    Coun Gorys apparently told The Gazette “I have made the apology and that’s it.”

    His colleague Coun Sean Haffey, a member of the Standards Committee and like Coun Gorys, a Conservative, told The Gazette “It was clearly a matter that he needed to apologise for.

    “He has done a huge amount of good work for the council and it is a real pity that he made this email but he has now apologised for it.”

    NOTE: What isn’t clear is exactly how the e-mail was released by the council under the Freedom of Information Act as I would have thought that such comments would be covered by a Section 40 exemption. Any comments?

  • Escaped prisoners’ data protection row

    Posted on July 6th, 2009 admin No comments

    Jack Straw's department left to struggle with Data Protection issues.

    The following story relating to the Department of Justice made me smile. It seems that like many organisations they get in a real pickle over the Data Protection Act. It leaves us in the ridiculous position that it refuses to name escaped prisoners - even if it has publicly named them in press releases when they were jailed. It will be interesting to see what the MoJ will do when hit by a legal action from an unsuspecting member of the public attacked by one of these AWOL prisoners. Just for comparison purposes you can go to the MoJ’s disclosure log where you will find the names of the barristers who picked up the most cash while either defending or prosecuting our criminals - is there any logic there?

    Government officials are refusing to name prisoners who escape and go on the run - in case it breaches their human rights, it was revealed today.

    The Ministry of Justice turned down a request made under the Freedom of Information Act to name escaped criminals.

    The department said it would breach data protection rules to name the fugitives despite the police routinely issuing details and photographs of fugitives at the time they escape.

    The East Anglian Daily Times requested details of every prisoner to have absconded from Hollesley Bay open prison in Woodbridge, Suffolk, over a two year period.

    The newspaper was told 39 had left the prison between January 1, 2007 and March 31, 2009 and was given details of the crimes they had committed.

    But officials refused to name the fugitives, saying the information was exempt because it could breach the Data Protection Act.

    They also claimed releasing the information could prejudice police investigations.

    Critics condemned the decision. Suffolk Coastal MP John Gummer said he would raise the matter with Justice Secretary Jack Straw.

    He said: ”It’s intolerable and entirely unacceptable. There is no sense in which a prisoner’s identity is a private matter.

    ”In my view he sacrifices that when he becomes a prisoner. This annoys me very much indeed. We have gone mad if this is what we are doing.”

    In a letter refusing the request, officials wrote: ”It is the general policy of the Ministry of Justice not to disclose, to a third party, personal information about another person.

    ”This is because the Ministry of Justice has obligations under the Data Protection Act and in law generally to protect this information.”

    Shadow justice secretary Dominic Grieve said: ”The Government is not obliged by the law on privacy to withhold the identity of fugitive prisoners, where it helps prevent crime or protect the public.

    ”The Justice Secretary must stop blaming his own legislation for his own lack of transparency - it only fuels public suspicion that he is really trying to avoid political embarrassment.”

  • FoI Act “undermined by delays”

    Posted on July 3rd, 2009 admin No comments

    Long delays by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) in investigating freedom of information complaints are undermining the effectiveness of the FOI Act, according to a new report by the Campaign for Freedom of Information.

    The report analyses nearly 500 formal decision notices issued by the ICO in the 18 months to 31 March 2009. The decisions were made under the FOI Act and the associated Environmental Information Regulations. It finds that -

    • on average it took 19.7 months from the date of a complaint to the ICO to the date on which the ICO’s decision on the complaint was issued
    • in 46% of cases it took between 1 and 2 years from complaint to decision
    • a quarter of formal decisions took between 2 and 3 years while 5% of cases (23 complaints) took more than 3 years
    • the longest case took 3 years and 10 and a half months
    • only 24% of decisions were issued within 12 months of the complaint.

    The report also found that on average the ICO’s investigation into a complaint did not begin until 8 months after the complaint had been received. In 28% of cases, there was a delay of more than a year before the investigation began and 19 cases waited more than 18 months. One complaint had been with the ICO for 22 months before the investigation began.

    Link to report.

    Link to table of decisions.

    And here is a response from the Information Commissioner’s Office.

    A spokesperson for the ICO said:

    “We are fully aware of the issues raised in the report by the Campaign for Freedom of Information. The FOI caseload has been discussed in two sessions of the Justice Select Committee in January and February this year. We have been consistently open about performance levels. Whilst only 10% of complaints result in a Decision Notice, these cases take longer to resolve than we would like. We are working with the resources available to us and continue to make further improvements to speed up our complaint handling. Last month we published a new Freedom of Information strategy outlining how we will resolve more cases informally and shorten the length of Decision Notices. The strategy also outlines the need for more proactive disclosure of official information by public authorities. Despite the improvements already made with additional funding from the Ministry of Justice, the popularity of FOI means that the number of complaints we are receiving is outstripping forecasts. We continue to make changes to resolve the increasing numbers of complaints as quickly and efficiently as possible within the resources available to us.”

     For those interested I had already reported on the case that holds the record for the longest delay here.

  • Appeal delays ‘not our fault’ says ICO

    Posted on July 2nd, 2009 admin No comments

    It would appear that with the introduction of a new Information Commissioner the office is no longer putting itself in the stocks for its slow handling of appeals.

    I received this letter today relating to an appeal I have lodged against a BBC decision. Normally the letter just tells me they have a lot of work on and that eventually they hope to get to my case.

    But this letter is a significant change of course for the Information Commissioner’s Office. They lay the blame quite squarely at a lack of resources - which means money - and by inference the finger is pointed straight at the Ministry of Justice, who hold the purse-strings.

    Is this the sign of things to come at the ICO where instead of doing the best they can with limited resources they just throw their hands in the air and say: “It’s not our fault”?

    If the latter option is the one that the ICO is going to take my heart sinks as it would suggest a defeatist attitude to backlogs will pervade the organisation and the wait for decisions will take even longer. Let’s hope I’m wrong.

    Oh, and if anybody can help me get rid of the line on my scanner I will be eternally grateful.


  • FoI Live 2009 : Poll results

    Posted on July 1st, 2009 admin No comments

    FoI Live 2009 has been and gone – and so has our poll on whether it was too expensive, or not.

    The overwhelming majority of you thought it was too pricey, in fact the voting went 10:1 in favour of it being overpriced.

    Some of the conference content is now available on-line [link].

    If you have any specific comments about FoI Live 2009, what was good, what was bad, please send in a comment and we can post it up to see if other agree. Remember you can do this anonymously if you want.