February 2005 Archives

The Home Office has replied regarding our FOIA request for the "official meeting diaries, agendas of meetings, travel and entertainment expenses involving Katharine Courtney, Stephen Harrison, and the post of Head of Marketing, from September 2001." i.e. the senior people in the Identity Cards Programme Team.

On the one hand, the Home Office is now in breach of the the Freedom of Information Act, as they admit that they have not provided a full reply within the statutory 20 working days.

On the other hand, at least it is not a formal refusal to disclose the information, which has been coming out in dribs and drabs, via Parliamentry Questions, referring to meetings with particular companies or other bodies.

Interestingly there is no talk of a "public interest balancing exercise" in this case.

The failure to reply within 20 working days, is of itself sufficient grounds to initiate an internal review and a possible appeal to the Information Commissioner.

Howeever, we are minded to give the Home Office a few more days before asking for an internal review of the case, provided that this does not end up as a delay which lasts beyond the time when the House of Lords is due to scrutinise the Identity Cards Bill.

N.B. currently there is no timetable slot officially published to indicate exactly when this Identity Cards Bill debate is set to happen in the House of Lords, but presumably this will be before the General Election is called i.e. probably before mid April at the latest.

The Government's response to our request for the publication of the, now out of date, Office of Government Commerce Gateway Reviews regarding the initial stages of the Home Office's Identity Cards scheme were not satisfactory.

The next step under the new and untested Freedom of Information Act procedures is to request an internal review. It is potentially a promising sign that the OGC "will make every effort to respond to you by Thursday 24th March 2005", i.e. within a month.

This does leave enough time before the presumed date of the General Election, for the next stage of complaint escalation, an appeal to the Information Commissioner to review the case and issue a legally binding Decision Notice.

After 35 working days, including a 15 working day "public interest balancing exercise" we have recived a disappointingly strong>minimal disclosure from the Home Office and the Office for Governmet Commerce regarding our FOIA request for the Pre-Zero and Stage Zero Gateway Reviews of the Identity Cards scheme.

We were hoping for and expecting, given that these Gateway Reviews are too early in the process to contain any commercially sensitive information, and since the Government is not yet officially in a formal procurement phase to spend billions of pounds of our money on their ID Card and centralised online biometric National Identity Register scheme. We were hoping for a view of what technical , financial and other project risks were considered at the outset of this multi-billion pound project, and what alternatives, if any were considered, and why they were rejected.

We would have understood if these Gateway Reviews had been published with the names of consultants and civil servants redacted or censored, and perhaps with some financial details similarly obscured (but not the overall bottom line financial costs). Similarly we would have expected to see the overall "Traffic Light" (green/amber/red) status of the project. Remember that these Gateway Reviews were conducted in 2003 and 2004, and that any "bad" results back then, could easily no longer be valid, following appropriate corrective action by the Home Office Identity Cards Programme team.

However we have got none of this out of the coordinated responseses from the Home Office and the Office for Government Commerce "axis of weasel", who managed to delay even this useless "disclosure" until after the Identity Cards Bill finished all its stages in the House of Commons.

Both Departments chose to email letters with Adobe .pdf attachments, the OGC chose to add a Security setting to prevent copy and pasting of the text. The Hom,e Office did not and their letter although slightly different contains the same disclosure attachment.

What is the point of the Office for Government Commerce, if it does not bother to report its Gateway Reviews either to the Public Accounts Committe, to Parliament or to the public under the Freedom of Information Act.

Currently there is no evidence that has been made public of any large scale Government projects, especially thaose involving complicated Information technology which have been properly managed to meet their original objectives, budegets and timescales as a result of the OGC Gateway Review process.

Our next step will probably be to request a formal "internal review" of the decision, which seems to be the current way of delaying any legally binding decsion by the Information Commissioner, presumably until after the presumed date of the General Election in May.

Read the Home Office reply and "disclosure":

The Department for Education and Skills has replied to our "anonymous human FOIA proxy") request about the OECD PISA study, made at the suggestion of someone posting a suggestion to this website.

This concerns the OECD PISA study of the educational standards achieved by 15 year olds in 51 countries around the world. Astonishingly, the DfES, through its contractor the Office for national Statistics, somehow managed not to sign up enough schools and pupils in England for the test results to be considered statistically valid enough for international comparision, the whole point of the exercise, and something which has been achieved in previous years.

This is despite increasing financial incentives from £200, to £500 to £1000 in cash to each participating school.

This all sheds an interesting light on the reign of Charles Clarke, who was the Education Secretary at the time, before being appointed Home Secretary a couple of months ago.

As an FOIA request, this one seems to have been successful, with some previously unreleased documents being made available, carefully redacted to remove the personal names of DfES and OECD officials, which is perfectly acceptable, whilst showing the sequence of events.

For those of you interested in comparative educational standards, or wishing to question the Government on school standards, this FOIA reest could prove useful for further probes e.g.

  • Scotland and Northern Ireland did manage to provide a statistically valid sample to the OECD. What about Wales ?

  • If the ONS cannot persuade enough schools to participate, should the contract be given to someone else ?

  • How worthwhile is theis whole OECD PISA statistical exercise anyway ? Does it help to unlock extra European Union funding forr our schools or not ?

    Letter from the DfES, via email, 11th February 2005, i.e. after only 15 working days:

  • We have had a letter, from the Office for National Statistics, dated and postmarked 7th February 2005, delivered today 9th February, i.e. 13 working days since our FOIA request to the Office for National Statistics regarding the Citizen Information Project.

    Given the paucity of public information on the Citizen Information Project, who knew that there are over 5000 documents related to it ?

    Any suggestions as to how we can narrow down the request would be appreciated.

    The letter:

    The Department for Work and Pensions website was updated yesterday with almost all of the information that we requested through our FOIA request

    The Work and Pensions Longitudinal Study webpages Background Information and Safeguards and List of Uses now include links to other documents which go a very long way towards the level of transparency which was promised over a year ago:

    The minutes etc. of the Ethics Committee are also promised to be published on the web site soon.

    c.f. below for the reassurances given about the number of Security Incidents which might have compromised the massively valuable combined Department for Work and Pensions and Inland Revenue combined Data Sets

    Reply from the Department for Work and Pensions, after only 18 working days:

    The Home Office have also replied to the Freedom for Information Act request for the OGC Gateway Reviews, which we submitted to them at the same time as to the Office of Government Commerce.

    There is policy coordination going on between the departments, as they have replied in almost the same words, quoting the same Exemptions and the estimate of an extra 15 working days whilst they consider the "balance of the public interest" i.e. after the Identity Cards Bill has finished its remaining stages in the House of Commons on Thursday 10th February 2005, before going on to the House of Lords.

    Home Office reply:

    The Office of Government Commerce has replied to our request for the Gateway Reviews regarding the Identity Cards scheme, on the 20th working day after having received the FOIA request.

    So, having managed not to publish the information requested in time for it to be considered as part of the debate during the House of Commons Committee Stage of the Identity Cards Bill, they are now planning not to publish anything until after the final Report and Third Reading debates in the House of Commons on Thursday 10th February 2005. Is this a mere coincidence, or is this political calculation ?

    They confirm that they hold the requested information but mention a couple of Exemptions:

    section 33 Audit Functions and for parts of the information, section 35 Formulation of Government Policy

    These Exemptions are subject to the "balance of the public interest".

    Accordingly they are conducting a "Balancing exercise" and they estimate that this will take a further 15 additional working days.

    It does seem astonishing that it will take so long to decide - perhaps they really will have to discuss this at Cabinet level, as was implied by Lord Falconer.

    Who would have guessed that our little FOIA request could possibly cause such deliberations and considerations within the Government 8-)

    The reply from the Office of Government Commerce:

    The Government still seems to be dithering about publishing the OGC Gateway Reviews of the Identity Cards scheme, according to a Written Answer to a Parliamentary Question yesterday:

    "Identity Cards

    Mr. Oaten: To ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer if he will publish (a) the Office of Government Commerce's (OGC's) Gateway Zero review into the identity cards scheme and (b) all other OGC reviews of the scheme. [208284]

    Mr. Boateng: I am currently reviewing whether there is any Gateway Review or other OGC review which should be published regarding the identity cards scheme and I will write to the hon. Member as soon as these considerations are complete."

    The 20 working days deadline for our FOIA request for exactly these OGC Gateway Reviews expires today

    A reader of this blog draws our attention to a long running battle with bureacracy at the Driver and Vehicle Licesnsing Agency, which seems to have been resolved by a Freedom of Information Act request:

    "Thought you might be interested a forum posting I read today.

    It concerns somebody's attempts to get a simple geographic number
    alternative to the DVLA's 0870 numbers so they can be contacted at a
    lower cost and from outside the UK.

    They had various evasive and downright inaccurate responses and kept
    saying that they were not give out such a number. The person then sent
    an FOI request and got a simple reply on the 20th day:

    http://www.saynoto0870.com/cgi-bin/forum/YaBB.cgi?board=news;action=display;num=1095264985

    The final response is on page three by "idb" if you don't have time to
    read much of it.

    Thanks, and keep up the good work!"

    One good comment in the discussion thread is a riposte to the suggestion that people should contact the BBC's "Watchdog" consumer rights TV programme about the issue - except that they too are profiting from a Premium Rate 0870 number !

    It is not just the DVLA which has switched over to 0870 Premium Rate phone numbers for their main public enquiry phone line, in contravention of the offical guidlines quoted in the forum discussion thread above, so has the Home Office, and the Department for Education and Skills.

    A Google search reveals that lots of other UK Government departments and agencies are also ripping off the public with 0870 Premium Rate numbers from which they derive, more and more revenue, the longer they keep you hanging on the phone.

    The Inland Revenue, the National Health Service Direct system and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs use a 0845 "national local rate" numbers, but these are also often more expensive than a direct phone call, for many people.

    Is it worth asking, via FOIA requests, who made the decisions to move over to 0870 Premium Rate phone numbers in each of these cases, and how they can be justified for the main public phone enquiry lines for public services ? What role did the telecomms sales people have in getting public authorities to change over to these relatively expensive services ?

    There may be a place for premium rate numbers for some specialised services, but surely the main public enquiry phone numbers for Government Departments and Agencies should be 0800 Freephone numbers within the United Kingdom, many of which are available to contact various Government Departments, with normal Subscriber Trunk Dialing international contact number alternatives ?

    About this blog

    This United Kingdom based blog has been spawned from Spy Blog, and is meant to provide a place to track our Freedom of Information Act 2000 requests to United Kingdom Government and other Public Authorities.

    If you have suggestions for other FOIA requests,  bearing in mind the large list of exemptions, then email them to us, or use the comments facility on this blog, and we will see  what we can do, without you yourself having to come under the direct scrutiny of  "Sir Humphrey Appleby" or his minions.

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