FOI: Some thoughts on the naughty step list

For FOI geeks such as me, the latest list of organisations which the Information Commissioner has concerns about made interesting reading.

18 authorities are being monitored amid concerns about how quickly it responds to FOI requests. You can see the list here. The one which jumps out at me straight away is Kirklees Council which, regular readers of this blog will remember, has a council leader who expects to sign off FOI requests.

That list of 18 is down on the 33 authorities the Commissioner has been monitoring over the last six months. Of that list, four councils have been asked to sign undertakings that they will improve their performance when it comes to dealing with FOIs. Among those four is Hammersmith and Fulham Council – an authority which was at the forefront of the council newspaper debate. On one hand, it was so keen to communicate with members of the public that it had to publish its own newspaper once a fortnight, yet on the other hand is one of four councils being asked to improve the way it provides information under FOI.

Also among those 33 authorities being monitored last time was NHS North West, the strategic health authority for the North West. It’s one of those public bodies which the Labour government claimed was evidence of it pushing decision making to the regions but which was, in fact, a meddling extension of government which made it much harder for primary care trusts, hospitals and GPs to make decisions.

It is worth singling out here because of how it responded to keeping the public informed of swine flu outbreaks in January:

Bosses at NHS North West have banned health trusts from providing information on deaths from flu, including the H1N1 virus. They say data may be incomplete and therefore difficult to interpret – so they only want national figures released.

There’s something almost perverse about NHS North West, during a health crisis which stretched hospitals to their limits, finding the time to contact all hospitals and tell them not to release information which would have helped reassure people about the scale of outbreak, or indeed alert them to the need to be particularly careful.

So what do Kirklees Council, Hammersmith and Fulham and NHS North West all have in common? They all seem very, very keen to manage the flow of information which comes out of their organisations.

In the case of Kirklees Council, it’s a council leader who wants to sign off FOIs. In the case of Hammersmith and Fulham, it’s the contradiction of putting so much effort into a council newspaper but not responding to FOIs fast enough. In the case of NHS North West, it appears they have an arrogant belief that they are above being held to account locally.

The challenge for the Information Commissioner now is to show he has the teeth to make them change. It would appear the vast majority of the 33 monitored last time have – but what will happen to the others?


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