Your 1st place for FoI News
RSS icon Email icon Home icon
  • Commissioner blows out the Beeb

    Posted on November 9th, 2009 admin No comments
    Can't see Christopher Graham anywhere

    Can't see Christopher Graham anywhere

    The new Information Commissioner Christopher Graham has had to turn down a plush trip to the Last Night of the Proms after finding himself in an embarrassing conflict of interests.

    In July this year Graham responded to an invitation from the BBC’s Vice-Chairman Chitra Bharucha to free tickets at the BBC showpiece at the Royal Albert Hall for himself and a guest. He e-mailed the BBC to say he would be “delighted” to accept the “kind invitation”.

    It appears that new to the job Graham didn’t realise just how at loggerheads the BBC and the Information Commissioners office were.

    Ten days later he e-mailed his contact at the Beeb to say: “I am very sorry to have to cancel for the Last Night. I do apologise and thanks to Chitra for the kind invitation.

    “One month into the job, I realise that there is quite a bit of unfinished business between the Information Commissioner and the BBC.

    “Under the circumstances, I don’t think I should be accepting invitations of this kind. What a shame!”

    The initial invite had been in a private box at the concert with ten others starting at 7.30 with drinks served in the interval.

    The exchange of e-mails was released by the Information Commissioner’s Office following a Freedom of Information request to [link].

    You can read the full redacted transcript here. CG and BBC e-mails

    Are they X Factor or Strictly fans

    Are they X Factor or Strictly fans

    It will be interesting to know if the BBC will be inviting Graham, a former BBC employee, next year. Because of course the picture looks a lot rosier for both organisations now.

    The decision of the High Court to prop up the BBC derogation means the BBC is happy that it can cling on to its financial secrets.

    But the verdict can’t be too disheartening for Graham either – he was not responsible for the previous line on the derogation – but now he can immediately clear-up dozens of troublesome appeals that were adding the Commissioner’s embarrassing backlog.

    Break out the bubbly.

    During Richard Thomas’ tenure at the Information Commissioner’s Office there was a strict policy of making sure all gifts were pooled and then distributed among staff via a raffle.

    I wonder if any of the £18k case workers the Commissioner is advertising for will be hob-nobbing with the great and the good at next year’s Proms?

  • Public row follows ACPO conference speech

    Posted on August 14th, 2009 admin No comments
    Richard Thomas - Going out with a bang

    Richard Thomas - Going out with a bang

    Those of you who attended the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO)s Information Rights conference in June were in on the ground floor on the start of a row between the outgoing Information Commissioner Richard Thomas and the head of the Independent Safeguarding Authority (ISA), the organisation that will soon be charged with holdings data on millions of people in a bid to keep children and vulnerable adults safe.

    Richard Thomas publicly expressed his annoyance at the ISA during his speech at the conference and this obviously annoyed Sir Roger Singleton who is in charge of the organisation. He wrote a letter to Mr Thomas asking him to withdraw the remarks only to get a response almost immediately saying he wouldn’t.

    I’ve got hold of the the exchange of letters between the ISA and the Information Commissioner’s Office which are below along with a more detailed story.

    Say sorry letter from the ISA

    Three letters between the ICO and ISA. Final one is from Richard Thomas stating he will not withdraw his remarks


    The bosses of the massive new ‘child safety’ database brought in after the Soham murders of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman has come under attack from the Government’s Information watchdog.

    The Independent Safeguarding Authority (ISA), which will hold a mass of information on 11million people who work with children and vulnerable adults, has been criticised for being “ill-prepared” and the Information Commissioner says he has “grave concerns” about the way it will operate.

    Top children’s authors such as Golden Compass writer Philip Pullman have also attacked the ISA, which will hold records on volunteers and professionals, saying the scheme goes “too far” and forces people “to clear their name from something they haven’t done.”

    The war of words between the two Government bodies has developed into a full blown hissy-fit with each organisation claiming they are the ones in the right and each claims they are waiting for a response from the other side.

    In an exchange of stinging letters the ISA is warned by the Information Commissioner that the huge database could:

    • Create a major incident if there is a security breach in the system,
    • Be open to abuse from staff within the ISA if there is no way of tracking the activity of the database operators,
    • Cause major controversy in that it will include allegations and suspicions of wrong-doing rather than just facts such as criminal convictions,
    • Become swamped by individuals making a request to see what is on their personal record.

    Last month the out-going Information Commissioner Richard Thomas, said: “The database would contain allegations, some rumour and some speculation. If officials start making wrong decisions or allow the data to get into the wrong hands the scope of the damage done both to individuals and the system as a whole is quite considerable.”

    His comments upset the ISA chairman Sir Roger Singleton who asked him to withdraw the comments.

    Mr Thomas hit back in a letter saying: “For over six months we have been trying to obtain information about how your data protection responsibilities will be fulfilled.

    “My previous letter expressed my ‘strong concerns’ about the delays and sought reassurance that there is not a lack of preparedness within the ISA. I outlined the major concerns which I regard as a priority.

    “Given the imminence of the launch in October, my letter concluded by seeking a response as a ‘matter of urgency’.

    “Two weeks after my letter I had not received even an acknowledgement, let alone a full response or the requested information.

    “In the circumstances I regret that I am unable to agree to your request that I should withdraw the comments that I made.”

    In an earlier letter Mr Thomas had moaned: “I am writing to express my strong concern about substantial and continuing delays in providing my Office with information about the proposed operations of the ISA.”

    A statement the ISA said: “The ISA assumed it had an on-going and productive dialogue with
    the Information Commissioner’s Office (including face to face meetings). Therefore the ISA was disappointed with the comments attributed to Mr Thomas, which indicate that he had some concerns with the ISAs response to his correspondence.

    “The Chief Executive of the ISA has received one letter from the Information Commissioner (27th May 2009) and responded in full on the 12th June 2009. 

    “We have written to both Information Commissioner and Deputy Commissioner, to have these comments clarified and to highlight the positive work that has so far been undertaken by the ISA with the Commissioner’s Office - which we hope will continue. We are currently awaiting a reply.”

    Guy Herbert, General Secretary of anti-state database pressure group NO2ID, said: “That one of the government’s many voracious data-collection agencies is incapable or unwilling to meet the requirements of the government’s privacy-enforcement agency is, sadly, entirely predictable.

    “The ISA will make an institution out of ruining lives and careers with third-hand speculation and gossip. It will create a corrosive atmosphere in which everyone is guilty and must prove themeselves innocent.

    ” There is no evidence that a byzantine database containing, in this case, inaccuracies, half-truths and rumour will do anything to protect the groups it purports to defend.

    “The ISA and databases such as the National Identity Register and children’s database ContactPoint will - far from reducing risks - become enormous security risks themselves: huge repositories of information open to criminal hacking, insider fraud, data corruption and error.”

  • Culture of secrecy is weakening

    Posted on June 17th, 2009 admin No comments

    The following article by outgoing Information Commissioner Richard Thomas was published in the Mail on Sunday - it is an interesting summary of how far Freedom of Information has travelled in the last four and a half years, and some of the dangers on the horizon.


    A scene from the film adaptation of George Orwell's '1984'

    A scene from the film adaptation of George Orwell's '1984'

    Biometric identity cards. The Attorney General’s legal advice on the Iraq invasion. MMR vaccine. A database of every child in the country. Street View and Facebook. Nuclear plant safety. Questions about whether we are sleepwalking into a surveillance society. Oh - and MPs’ expenses.

    There’s nothing dull about data protection and freedom of information. Protecting personal information and upholding the citizen’s right to know about the activities of a vast public sector cut across virtually every aspect of life.

    When I started as the independent Information Commissioner at the end of 2002, I predicted that the role would involve promoting novel and controversial laws that would often be seen as threatening to powerful forces.

    I probably underestimated the scale of the challenge. I have certainly had to ruffle a few feathers. But as I stand down after nearly seven years I hope that the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), which I have been privileged to lead, has made a real difference.

    Our dual role is to bring home the importance of safeguarding personal privacy, while pushing government and the rest of the public sector towards genuine open government.

    The aim is to minimise what others know about our private lives and maximise what we know about the activities of government.

    When I started, data protection was marginalised and frankly seen as somewhat nerdy. Freedom of information was a subject of interest to the chattering classes and - after years of debate - had not even been implemented.

    Both now influence, and sometimes set, news and political agendas on a daily basis. Both have come of age and moved centre-stage.

    Data breaches - including the loss of 25million child benefit records in 2007 and 14 NHS data security breaches in the past year - have shown beyond doubt that people really care about how their information is handled.

    Money is at stake when bank account details fall into the wrong hands but health records involve particularly sensitive data. My office has had to take action against a number of hospitals and other NHS organisations.

    Inquiries and investigations have demonstrated that high-level accountability is key to handling personal information well. It is too important to be left just to compliance officers, lawyers, IT departments and other experts.

    Someone at the top has to make sure that all the risks have been addressed. High-level management is needed to make sure that staff are aware that customers, taxpayers, employees, pensioners and service personnel expect their personal information to be properly collected, stored and used. Data lapses risk reputations and bottom lines.

    Chief executives are now getting the message and starting to take data protection much more seriously. The threat of a substantial fine by the ICO will also focus minds when this power is finally made available later this year.

    I suspect the debate will shift increasingly from security to questions about the accuracy and relevance of the data. What company wants inaccurate records on its customers? What public body can afford to mix up two identities? Will the Court of Appeal agree with me that the police do not need to keep for decades records of isolated and very minor offences committed by upright citizens when in their teens?

    As well as accuracy, data minimisation needs to be the watch-phrase - not collecting more than is needed, nor keeping it longer than necessary. Data protection does not stop sensible things being done but it does make organisations think about, and justify, what they are doing.

    The Government has been an advocate of creating huge collections of data, often with very good intentions, and of course information can be a valuable asset for law enforcement, public protection and service delivery.

    However, it can also quickly turn into a toxic liability if the risks materialise. If things go wrong, real damage can be inflicted on people’s careers, their reputations, their personal relationships, their private lives and their bank balances.

    And you do not need to believe in George Orwell’s Big Brother to see that real damage can be inflicted on society at large if government collects too much information about us. This is central to the relationship between State and citizen.

    We often have little choice about entrusting the State with our personal records on tax, police, health, education, driving and so on. We need to have trust and confidence that each database is being used for the right purpose. We do not need or want to get paranoid about who knows what about us or otherwise have our freedoms and liberties jeopardised.

    I welcome the increased awareness of the dangers that excessive, unrestrained or unscrutinised collection and use of personal information can bring. Benign motives do not eliminate the risks. I said last year that setting up a government database to keep a record of all our emails, phone calls, text messages, web searches and online shopping would have been a step too far for the British way of life.

    I welcome the Home Office’s decision to rule out the idea of a single government-run store of communications traffic data. The tensions between security and liberty are undoubtedly delicate but they are healthy and it is essential to secure a balance, with clear boundary lines, informed by full debate.

    Openness is, of course, key to public confidence and the Freedom of Information Act introduced the legal right to know. There has been a strong appetite for it - we estimate that nearly half a million requests have been made so far. I am proud that we have nurtured the law to become a permanent fixture and a core part of the fabric of public life.

    The recent uproar over MPs’ expenses has cemented the Act’s reputation as a success story.

    The surprise is no longer the nature and extent of disclosure of information. What is astonishing is how much was previously kept secret.

    Transparency and openness have now become part of the standard political vocabulary. Politicians and commentators compete to hail the benefits of the public’s right to know. It is a defining feature of a modern democracy and a stark reminder that politicians and their officials serve the people, not the other way round. Citizens are entitled to know what is done in their name, with their money.

    As well as promoting accountability and public engagement, freedom of information deters corruption and impropriety. It’s no wonder that, many years ago, a famous US judge described openness as the best disinfectant.

    The culture of instinctive official secrecy in the UK is weakening but there is still further to go. Everyone in public life can learn from the MPs’ expenses saga. That is why I called last week for more routine disclosure, making information available without waiting to be asked.

    Departments need to identify their Crown Jewels, which really must be kept confidential, and publish other material as a matter of course.

    Access to information is part of a much wider agenda of social change. Modern communications mean it is easy to discover the facts. Open government is good government and I welcome indications from the Prime Minister that the Freedom of Information law will be extended and the 30-year rule reduced. The proposal to exclude Cabinet papers, not just Cabinet minutes, from disclosure is bound to be more controversial.

    On Thursday, the Commons authorities are expected to finally publish wholesale details of MPs’ expenses. This follows my initial ruling ordering disclosure.  

    Of course, the media beat the Commons to publication of some of the material, but none of this would be known were it not for the Freedom of Information Act.

  • Richard Thomas dodges the dole queue

    Posted on April 29th, 2009 admin No comments
    Memo to new staff: "Don't mention the veto"

    Memo to new staff: "Don't mention the veto"

    For those readers of FoINews who have been e-mailing me concerned at the future job prospects of the outgoing Information Commissioner Richard Thomas, I have good news.

    The fall out over the Ministerial Veto has obviously been brushed over as Mr Thomas has been given a new job under the umbrella of the Ministry of Justice - and was appointed by the Jack Straw. No hard feelings there then.

    When Mr Thomas leaves the hot seat at the Information Commissioner’s Office at the end of June he will hop into the top seat at the newly formed Administrative Justice and Tribunals Council.

    Mr Thomas, who has been given a four-year appointment in the post, said: “The Administrative Justice and Tribunals Council has a key role in improving public justice – promoting confidence in the arrangements for resolving disputes between citizens and the public sector.

    ‘I am looking forward to taking up this role and carrying forward the excellent start which the Council has made under Lord Newton’s leadership.’