With the ICO, you’re the last to know

This morning I happened to be at home. This was fortunate because I was able to take delivery of a decision notice sent by registered mail by the Information Commissioner. If I hadn’t been here – and usually I’m not – I would have been ignorant that my case seeking a detailed breakdown of MPs’ Additional Costs Allowance had finally – after a year’s wait – been decided.

But that’s not actually true. I would have known about the decision because a press release was already written and on its way to all the news wires. The Commissioner’s private PR firm (paid for with taxpayer money I might add) had already been briefed on the controversial decision (unlike me) and their press strategy was already underway before any of us complainants knew our cases had even been decided.

Clearly this is regulation by press release. As the complainant who brought this case, I have a right to be informed first about how my case was decided. Instead I have to hear about it from the news wires.

This is not the first time this has happened. Decisions on my cases for the Attorney General’s advice on the Iraq War and the names and salaries of MPs’ staff were published before I’d ever received the Commissioner’s Decision Notices.

There seems a blatant double standard where the public bodies that are regulated by the Information Commissioner are given every courtesy and informed in advance of upcoming decisions and their contents, particularly where they are controversial. But the public are treated like the cheated-upon spouse – we are the last to know.

The Information Commissioner’s own guidelines state that: “He will give both Departments and complainants a reasonable period of time to digest the Notice before himself making the Decision Notice publicly available.” [Memorandum of Understanding] Page 6, section 23. At the FOI Live conference on 16th June 2005, Richard Thomas announced that his policy was to wait 48 hours before publishing decisions.

Clearly the Commissioner is not living up to his own guidelines. If he spent as much energy dealing with his backlog of cases rather than his press strategy then maybe he wouldn’t have such bad press in the first place.

My request was made 20 March 2006 to the House of Commons Commission. I asked for an itemised breakdown of all MPs’ Additional Costs Allowances for the most recent financial year. Later, I agreed to narrow the request to 10 MPs who were: Tony Blair, David Cameron, Menzies Campbell, Gordon Brown, George Osborne, John Prescott, George Galloway, Margaret Beckett, William Hague and Mark Oaten.

The decision notice is case reference FS50124671. I will be posting up the decision and the ICO’s press release issued this morning shortly.

6 Responses to “With the ICO, you’re the last to know”

  1. Martin says:

    The decision notice is dated 13 June (Wednesday), but the press release only came through this morning. The release appeared on the ICO PR RSS feed at 11:31, but the actual decision notice is not on the decision notice RSS feed yet (2.15pm).

  2. heather says:

    Yes that’s the date on the letter but it wasn’t mailed until yesterday and I didn’t receive it until today. So if they are going to start the clock from the date the decision is issued then that should also be the date the complainants were notified of it.

    There’s no point starting the ‘two-day’ waiting period before the complainant has even received the decision. The guidance says that the parties should be given a reasonable time to digest the decision. I didn’t even have 10 minutes! Seeing that I have waited almost two years for the Commissioner to assign a caseworker to another of my cases, I think putting out a press release within 10 minutes of my receiving the deciion is pretty surprising alacrity. If only the ICO showed the same speedy performance processing his caseload then perhaps he wouldn’t need a PR agency.

  3. Martin says:

    … I had always assumed that the date on the notice is when the parties involved received their copies.

  4. Nick Evans says:

    It seems rather feeble that they can’t email a complainant about the decision, if you’ve requested that. That would seem to be the best way of ensuring you get advance notice.

    Although, playing devil’s advocate, if you as a journalist make an FoI request to bring information to the public, what does it matter if other journalists also have the chance to inform the public at the same time. Surely it’s more in keeping with the spirit of FoI that information is distributed as widely as possible than it is that individual journalists get scoops?

  5. Ben Leapman says:

    Like Heather, I’m one of the complainants in this case.
    In January 2005, I lodged my request with the Commons authorities for copies of receipts submitted in support of Additional Cost Allowance payments by six named MPs. Like Heather, I was only informed of the Decision Notice publication on the morning of Friday, June 15, 2007, even though the DN is dated Wednesday, June 13. I broke the news on the Telegraph website shortly at around midday on the Friday (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2007/06/15/nexpense115.xml)
    I’ve now written to the Information Commissioner querying many aspects of the way this case was handled, including the two-and-a-half year delay; his decision not to order the Commons authorities to release the actual receipts; and the mechanics of how the decision was announced.
    In response to Nick Evans’s point — you’re right, the legislation isn’t there to get journalists scoops. But I’d have liked to to receive the DN on the day it was dated, not two days later; and I’d rather be told by phone call and email than via Royal Mail Special Delivery. (To be fair, the ICO’s PR agency did phone and email as well; but if I’d been at home on the Friday morning, rather than in my office, I’d have received the letter and learned the decision an hour or two earlier. These timings do matter in our 24/7 news environment.) — Ben Leapman, Home Affairs Correspondent, The Sunday Telegraph

  6. heather says:

    Hi Nick, As you’ll know from this blog I’m all for getting information freed into the public domain but what I have an issue with is the Information Commissioner using MY effort for his own publicity propaganda. I am not just a freelance journalist – in fact I am also a consultant, an academic and a writer of books. But as a freelance journalist the way I earn a living is to write the sort of stories that other daily journalists don’t. And my specialty is making FOI requests. So for the Commissioner to negate all my efforts (which costs ME considerable personal time and expense) to issue a press release before I have even had a chance to recoup some of my costs is effectively creating a barrier to trade. There has to be some benefit to a requester to deal with all the arrogant, obstructive, rude and petty bureaucrats that one has to in order to release official data in this country. If there isn’t, then no one will make the effort and that is a very bad thing. It is not the ICO’s nor the government’s role to compete with or obstruct private business.

Leave a Reply