Monthly Archives: November 2010

How to get access to environmental information: The EIRs (2004)

The Environmental Information Regulations (EIRs) 2004 give the public access rights to environmental information held by public authorities. The regulations were introduced alongside the FoI Act in January 2005 and cover any data considered to be ‘environmental’ within its stated terms. Here are some key points to consider when requesting information through the EIRs.

Who is obliged to provide access to environmental information?

  • all public bodies covered by the FoI Act
  • bodies that carry out functions of public admin and bodies that are controlled by a public authority and have responsibilities, exercise functions or provide public services relating to the environment

(Defra provides a detailed guide of who is covered by the regulations.)

What information can you request?

  • the state of elements of the environment (e.g. air, water, soil)
  • factors affecting those elements (e.g. waste disposal, noise)
  • activities and measures that impact those elements (e.g. contracts, policies, legislation)
  • reports on the implementation of environmental legislation
  • cost-benefits and other economic analysis used within the framework of the above measures
  • the state of human health and safety (e.g. contamination of food chain, cultural sites and built structures)

What are the exemptions to access to environmental information?

  • Information is not held (the request should then be referred on)
  • The request is manifestly unreasonable
  • The request is too general
  • The request is for unfinished documents or data
  • The request is for internal communications

A public authority may also refuse to disclose information or withhold part of it in order to protect the following:

  • Confidentiality of proceedings
  • International relations/public security/defence
  • The course of justice and right to fair trial
  • Commercial confidentiality
  • Intellectual property rights
  • Personal / voluntary data
  • Environmental protection

Getting access to environmental information:

  • You can request access via the reception for citizens, press office, record registry or the specific department that deals with requests
  • Access can be requested verbally or in written form just like other FOI requests
  • Environmental information should be provided within 20 days after the body has informed you of the decision for providing access
  • The body should also tell you whether the information is already available or whether is will be processed to meet your request (including any potential cost)

What the body/officials CANNOT do:

  • Ask you what capacity you are working in
  • Ask you how you will use the information
  • Ask you whether you have a legal interest in the information

The ICO publishes further information for the public and for authorities on the regulations and this handy factsheet provides a quick guide to the EIRs and how to request information.

Goldacre: My patented phone call recording system


Ben Goldacre, author of Bad Science, award-winning writer and medical doctor has come up with his own ‘phone call recording system’ (as pictured).

All you need is:

  • phone
  • hands free headphones thing with two headphones (one in ear, other on dictaphone)
  • cheapo dictaphone (ideally with usb)
  • rubber band
  • Ben’s full blog post is already getting ‘legal’ comments posted, debating whether or not its allowed, but hey, kudos for improvisation!




    Talking FOI with @FoIManUK

    @FoIManUK is an FOI practitioner who has been ‘on the inside’ of the public sector for many years. He now also blogs about how the legislation works from the ‘inside’. Here he talks to Help Me Investigate about the impact of FOI legislation, the difficulties both users of the Act and FOI officers face and the future of government ‘transparency’:


    What are your motivations for starting the blog and what to you hope to achieve from it?

    Like many FOI Officers, I really enjoy my job. But it can be difficult getting caught in the crossfire between requesters and colleagues. It’s also frustrating seeing things reported in the media and not being able to respond. So the blog is really a reaction to that. I want to be able to get over what it’s like being in our role and why decisions are reached which might not be popular. In particular, the concerns we and colleagues have are usually not about trying to hide information, but more often about the impact on our authority’s work (which can obviously impact on the public ultimately). A pleasing side effect of writing the blog – that I wasn’t really anticipating – is that the blog and comments thread is becoming a useful forum to bring FOI Officers and requesters (including journalists) together and talk about FOI in a less confrontational way.


    Do you think the current legislation works (for practitioners/ journalists/ general public) and is there anything you think should be changed to make it easier to use?

    The FOI Act gets a bad press in my view. If you compare it to similar legislation in other countries, it is remarkably open – I often think more so than the legislators realised when it was going through Parliament. Two fundamental things were incorporated into the Act during its passage which make it very effective. One – the power of the Information Commissioner to order disclosure; and two, the public interest test for most exemptions (which really enhances the power of the Commissioner as well, as he can rule on whether the PI test has been applied correctly).


    People talk about there being too many exemptions, but that’s not really the point – it’s what you can withhold that’s fundamental. The Federal US Act, as I understand it, has fewer exemptions, but they’re broader and not subject to a public interest test, so in theory at least, it is much easier to withhold information in the US (though undoubtedly it depends which state you’re in and because it has been going since the 60s, there’s perhaps more of an ‘openness’ culture in the public sector there). The Australian equivalent has just been amended to make it more open, and the changes made reflect the approach of the UK Act, with more public interest tests and a powerful Information Commissioner.


    What could be improved?

    To be honest, I don’t think there’s much wrong with the Act itself. Possibly a requirement to state when you’re making an FOI request would make it easier to administer. But the main things that inhibit FOI are to do with how it is implemented, not the legislation itself. The Information Commissioner should have far more resources (and not just quantity, quality, in terms of the skill sets that they have available) so that complaints can be resolved more quickly. He should be funded by Parliament rather than MoJ.


    I disagreed with the decision to remove the public interest test from correspondence with the Royal Household – that happened because FOI Officers (and I’m sure the ICO) were telling them that they couldn’t always withhold such correspondence. That wasn’t popular with the Royal Household, but personally I think that we should have a right to know if members of the Royal Family are lobbying public authorities.

    I think there’s also a need for a debate about how to manage the impact of FOI on public resources – I’m not in favour of a charge per request as some authorities have suggested recently, but I understand their concerns and it would be great to have a proper discussion about it without political point scoring from all sides.


    Overall, how do you think the legislation has impacted public sector organisations?

    It’s definitely had a positive impact, though I’m not sure that’s always immediately clear to public employees. It has enhanced the sense that we’re accountable to the public. Whether it’s through fear of being found out (probably sometimes) or just generally through that sense of accountability, I think it has made people think more carefully about expenditure and controversial decisions. In some cases, that’s quite important. Some public sector organisations have not faced rigorous scrutiny from elsewhere and FOI acts as an additional check on them. I think FOI saves a lot of money in the long term, but it’s virtually impossible to quantify that. The ‘chilling effect’ is often spoken of as a bad thing, but if public employees take more care about what they write that’s a good thing. We have too much information if anything! 


    I think a lot of public employees (not just FOI Officers) would complain about the amount of time and effort that they have to spend on answering requests, not because they’re secretive, but just because they already have demanding jobs to carry out. And that’s not going to become any easier in the next few years. I worry particularly about organisations that are already under a lot of pressure – is it right to expect a hospital, for instance, to drop everything to ensure that an FOI response goes out on time?


    When dealing with FOI requests, what is the most common or most frustrating thing in the eyes of the FOI Officer?

    Probably requesters just not being clear enough about what is wanted or asking for too much. We’re occasionally accused of deliberately misinterpreting requests, but if your request is ambiguous it may well not be deliberate. A surprising answer might be that in some cases, at least, it is really frustrating when a  requester doesn’t follow up with a request for internal review. Sometimes the FOI Officer argues in favour of disclosure but is overruled. If requesters don’t make complaints, over time it can weaken our position/ability to persuade the organisation to take FOI seriously. If there are no consequences, authorities can become complacent.


    As a practitioner, what do you think can be improved on the ‘inside’ to deal better with requests?

    Firstly, however reasonable their complaints about resources, elected politicians, senior managers and staff need to accept that FOI is here to stay and respond in a positive way to requests passed to them. As FOI Officers it does get tiresome having to defend the legislation (which we didn’t enact, whatever our views on it) for the umpteenth time. That doesn’t mean that we always disclose information, but it does mean not shooting the messenger and instead working with the FOI Officer to ensure that where appropriate information is withheld, and everything else is disclosed on time. We should design our systems to be more flexible, allowing them to be more readily interrogated (although that’s not as easy as some people believe). Records management as a whole needs to be improved – we need to know what we’ve  got – but that’s not unique to the public sector. And yes, we do need to publish more.    


    Using FOI legislation can become frustrating for the requester when they can’t get the info they want. How do you think this could be combated? Is it about better knowledge and training?

    Much of the feedback I’ve had is that authorities have been helpful and provided information. It’s in a minority of cases that people aren’t happy. I think better awareness all around is part of the answer, but I don’t think you  can entirely remove discontent from the equation. If someone doesn’t get what they want, they’re going to be disappointed however justified the authority is to withhold it. But educating people is part of the answer. I once had a journalist turn up to get their response in person, and when they saw that we’d applied exemptions, they insisted that we couldn’t do that. They’d read Heather Brooke’s book (Your Right to Know) and claimed it said that we weren’t allowed to withhold information. I’m pretty sure that even Heather wouldn’t say that we’re not allowed to use exemptions at all!


    It’s clear that many journalists are using the Act to request information – what is your opinion on this and do you think that the idea of ‘opening up’ Government is directed at the general public or more so at the media?

    I’ve got no problem with journalists using the Act, but it is supposed to be for everyone, and it’s important that no one group gets special treatment – we’re supposed to consider requests in a ‘purpose-blind’ manner. Some FOI practitioners and other public officials do talk about FOI being a ‘journalists’  charter’ as though that were a bad thing. I can’t say that I agree – often journalists ask the most interesting questions and use the information most effectively. That said, there are things that journalists in particular do that cause irritation to FOI Officers and their colleagues, e.g. publishing information out of context, even when that context has been supplied; not using information that has taken a great deal of effort to provide; and the ‘fishing expeditions’ – very broad ranging requests made to try and flush out issues – that last one always causes irritation. But to shamelessly misquote Voltaire, “I disapprove of your request, but I will defend to the death your right to make it.”


    How do you see the Government’s ‘transparency movement’ and developments in open data impacting upon FOI legislation and its use?

    I think that having the political will to get more out there does make a difference. Having said that, some of the recent announcements seem just to be redressing information that was already out there. The big press conference the other week made such a fuss about publishing departmental business plans on the No 10 website. Much of that information was already available on departmental sites I suspect, and how exactly we’re supposed to use them to hold the Government to account is a question that has yet to be  answered. It all sounded like window-dressing to me. But maybe I’ll be proved wrong.


    In terms of how it will impact on FOI, I don’t think it really requires any change to the legislation to do what they’re proposing. If politicians want data to be made available to businesses and others more readily, they just have to order their officials to do it. Where this doesn’t happen at the moment, it’s usually  because officials are being asked “why should we give information prepared at public expense to businesses at no cost?” by the politicians or senior officers themselves. There’s very much a mixed message from our political masters and senior management.


    One of the great myths is that publishing more data will cut down on FOI requests. There’s very little if any evidence that this happens so far. In one authority that publishes a lot of data, they looked at this and concluded that if anything the requests went up because the data provoked people to ask for greater granularity. I also think that people should be very careful that politicians’ support for Open Data doesn’t become a Trojan Horse to weaken FOI. At the moment YOU can choose what you want to ask for; that’s very powerful. With ‘Open Data’ initiatives at present, it is still the authority deciding what it wants you to see.


    Another issue is that very often, the people dealing with ‘open data’ initiatives are entirely separate to the FOI Officers in an authority, and rarely consult them. I remember one situation where I found out about a month after data had been published that it was on our website. I then had to hurriedly update our Publication Scheme, which is supposed to be a comprehensive guide to what we make available. If FOI Officers can be properly involved in this process it will help authorities and potential requesters get the best out of this.


    What do you think about sites such as What Do They Know – is it a good thing that FOI requests and responses are shared publicly?

    Personally I have no problem with WDTK and I do think it’s useful. I do understand though why some FOI Officers and public officials take a different view, and I can certainly see how WDTK could be misused in certain circumstances. I’ve covered this issue in more detail on my blog.







    Parking fines investigation picked up by Sunday Times


    The Sunday Times recently reported on parking fines across the country, building on an investigation done by Help Me Investigate last summer into parking tickets in Birmingham. Sadly, their report on the issue is behind a paywall (you can also find a reference at Journalisted).?

    Neil Houston, who analysed much of the data in the original investigation, was approached by the Sunday Times journalists as part of their research.


    COMPLETED! How much does Higher Education cost each taxpayer per year on average?

    Carina’s last investigation took just a couple of hours to answer. Her latest took one week. 

    How much does Higher Education cost each taxpayer per year on average?” she asked last Monday. The answer? Around £400 per taxpayer per year.

    If you calculate the figure per person in the UK, the figure is about half that – but of course not every person pays tax. 

    The key to answering the question lay – it turned out – in knowing the right community to ask. 

    That community was users of Where Does My Money Go? (WDMMG) a site dedicated to analysing and visualising government expenditure information. After posting the question to the mailing list, one of the members of the WDMMG team published it to the site’s forum.

    3 days later, Lisa Evans posted this answer:

    If we take Tertiary educationfor the UK in 2009-10, from the country regional analysis data set, we get a total cost of £12.8 bn. Dividing this into the whole country population (let’s say 62 million) we get around £200 per person per year.

    However, if we say there are 33.3 million individuals who paid income tax in 2008/09 (frtable 1.4 – number of taxpayers on HM Revenue and Customs stats site) , and given that income tax makes up the largest part of national income, then we can say that:

    £12.8 bn divided into 33.3 million income tax payers is about £400 per person per year. 

    ‘Investigative comment’ for web reporting…

    When the winner of the Bevins Prize for Investigative Journalism was announced earlier this week, I doubt few could have argued that Clare Sambrook was an undeserving recipient, especially after receiving the Paul Foot award a week earlier. Her work with End Child Detention Now, alongside her group of volunteers, is clearly thought to be this year?s outstanding case of investigative journalism.

    The list of reports credited with both awards were written for web publication Opendemocracy. It is definitely of note that this is the first time an all web publication has won either award, showing the shift in practice and publication of investigative journalism. Amongst the fears  of the clarity and quality of content on the web, it is nice to see organisations and individuals embracing the opportunities this platform allows.

    The important concept to take from her work is that of ?investigative comment?; itis something that has the potential to change journalistic practice when it comes to investigations, especially on the web.

    Her original and innovative take on journalism is something that has been lacking in recent years; Anthony Barnett on Ourkingdom, a sub-section of Opendemocracy, wrote on her method and mentioned the fact and comment should no longer be separated.

    She tells us that ?If we respect the reader, then all journalism ought to be investigative ? probing, curious, digging?, examining and asking questions and forcing the reader to think, react and respond. Despite the articles mentioning, with quite a sharp tongue, the vested interests of various media organisations lending itself to bland neutrality, when in fact, ?it?s bonkers to demand that investigative work should be ?fair and balanced?.

    Despite a journalist needing to have that basic human lust for knowledge in bundles, we don?t really understand or appreciate that in order to go out and search for information and sources, we need to feel passionate about the reasons why we are trying to tell people the story and why we are out searching for the information.

    This passion will appeal to people, and only recently has the web allowed us to input this kind of openness and opinion into news reporting as part of a complete news story, entailing fact, report and subjective response.

    Arguments should not have to be presented subjectively, and controversial subjects or topics, like child detention centres, deserve an element of passion and opinion in their reporting, as long as you are honest with the facts, allow for open interpretation and discussion of the material you are distributing and bring something new to the public sphere.

    If there is anything to take from the successes of Clare and the End Child Detention Now campaign, it is that her reporting style, utilising ?investigative comment?, led to the distribution of a powerful and controversial story in an award-winning and thought provoking way to a discursive and receptive audience. Not something to be taken lightly.

    Freedom of Information and fighting for your hours…

    Yesterdays post on ?line to take? documents outlined how knowledge of internal procedure can help your FOI request ask the right questions first-time off, but there are still certain situations in which public service organisations refuse to fulfil the duties outlined by the Freedom of Information Act.

    This Freedom of Information request written by Rebecca Lawson is the perfect example of having to fight for your rights when it comes down to what you are allowed to ask for, with the organisation in question (Liverpool City Council) initially refusing to provide sufficient amounts of information and then sending over the information in unsuitable and unacceptable formats.

    Upon being refused data from 2002 to today because of the effort involved, a data set starting from 2008 was agreed. However, as you can tell from Rebecca?s response on June 23rd, the full data set asked for was not sent, with Liverpool City Council claiming that ?this work would take in
    excess of the 18 hours identified in the Freedom of Information Act and
    Data Protection Act (Appropriate Limit and Fees) Regulations 2004?.

    This, as Rebecca identifies, is not true because the software used (EcoWarrior, identified in a separate FOI request also on Whatdotheyknow) enables the data to be compiled and sent in electronic format ?within a few seconds or, at worst, a handful of minutes?.

    This provoked the response that should have arrived in the first place; a complete data set. However, there were further problems to contend with. Asking for the raw data means that it should be sent in Excel format (or similar) and as it obvious in the September responses that this was not the case. Rebecca correctly questioned and fought for the raw data and stated that this was both the obvious and the requested form for the information to be sent in.

    Liverpool City Council finally responded with the correct data in the correct format, in full.

    There are two main points to take from this exasperating experience; firstly, that it is important to ask what software is being used to formulate and collect the data if it is said to be in excess of the 18 hour limit (26 hours for central government) so as to deduce where the time will be being spent. It is another question an authority is required to answer and can be the difference between paying and not paying for the information requested.

    Secondly, push for the raw data, as it is completely within your rights to request this where possible. PDFs or scans, of whatever quality, are not a sufficient replacement for the raw data and should not be accepted as such, so put your foot down.

    Freedom of Information and ‘Line to take’ documents…

    The Freedom of Information Act has changed the way we go about investigative journalism, but it?s still difficult to know exactly how to formulate what is one of the most important journalistic tools at our disposal.

    The Information Commissioners Office (ICO) in 2007 released internal ?line to take? documents, outlining the regular protocol that should be undertaken when approaching a response to an FOI request.

    Or, in more formal terms right from the ICO?s mouth;

    By way of background, these documents are produced by our Policy Team as internal policy lines on the interpretation and application of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 for the benefit of the FOI Department as a whole. The policy lines are signed off at Assistant Commissioner level, and you will note that in the main they derive from Decision Notices and/or Information Tribunal decisions.

    As of August 2010, Whatdotheyknow successfully obtained the most recent collection of ?line to take? documents via FOI request (also featured on FOIwiki) to feature on their website.

    Now to explain the reason why; there is no better way to know exactly what to write than to know exactly what an organisation will respond to. Essentially, it?s easier to ask the right questions in the right way when you know how the organisation will answer.

    A great tool to use to make your FOI requests succinct and unquestionable in the eyes of public authorities.

    Completed investigation: Who is responsible for the advertising screen at Five Ways, Birmingham?

    Well this has to go down as the quickest investigation ever on Help Me Investigate. Carina posed the question "Who is responsible for the content of/runs the advertising screen at Five Ways, Birmingham?"?early on Friday afternoon. By the end of the afternoon we had an answer.

    Adam Banks suggested it might be Super Novae Media, and this was later confirmed by Rob MacPherson who said they booked the screen via the company.

    The investigation is now marked as complete, and Carina has already started another investigation:?How much does Higher Education cost each taxpayer per year on average?