Top 10 most read FOI posts of 2011

Thanks to everyone who has contributed to conversations on this blog during 2011, challenging, debating and informing my understanding of FOI and how it should be used by journalists. Here are the 10 FOI-related posts which generated the highest number of page impressions:

Jack the Ripper came to the Information Tribunal. Sort of

1. How Jack the Ripper is helping to shape FOI rules

When is it safe for authorities to release details of informants who have helped police solve crimes? Obviously, an informant would expect anonymity – but when does release of their information no longer pose a threat to them, or their family?

According to a ruling by a Freedom of Information Tribunal – the place you go to if you want to appeal an Information Commissioner ruling – the point at which releasing the name of informants via FOI no longer poses a threat to them is somewhere between 100 and 350 years after the event.

And it’s all thanks to Jack the Ripper. Really.

2. 20 FOI ideas to kick off 2011

There has been a spike in traffic coming to my blog this week using the search term ‘FOI ideas.’ Quiet first week back at the office maybe? So, here are 20 FOI ideas to kick off 2011, in no particular order. Happy new year!

3. FOI Friday: Custard spills, charity finances, twocking – and an important breakthrough

4. Meet the council leader who insists on vetting FOI responses

The front page of the Huddersfield Examiner

The front page of the Huddersfield Examiner

Being a bit of an FOI geek, a front page headline screaming ‘Freedom of Information? Not Likely’ at a service station on the M62 was always going to catch my attention.

The story, in Monday’s Huddersfield Examiner, is quite an astonishing one. The leader of Kirklees Council, based in Huddersfield, has been altering prepared FOI responses before they go out to the public.

In his defence, Council leader Mehboob Khan says he changes maybe only one in every 100 requests.

5. FOI: The council which only wants one FOI request from you every 60 days

I’ve added another council to the metaphorical transparency naughty step, so it’s time for Chester and Chester West Council – ‘We’ll make you pay for FOI requests’ – and Kirklees Council – ‘We’ll release it if the council leader says we can’ – to budge up a bit.

Take a seat Nottingham City Council, for imposing its own cap on the number of FOI requests an individual can make before they are being ‘vexatious.’

The serial FOI-er in question is a chap called Andy Platt, who runs a blog called NCClols, which basically casts a critical eye over goings on at the city council. He has history with the city council, and used to be work for them, but as we know, FOI requests are supposed to be treated on an ‘applicant blind’ basis.

6. The Hillsborough Files: Don’t be fooled by a Government fudge

The Government tonight announced that it wouldn’t block the release of documents it holds relating to the Hillsborough disaster. As reported widely, the Information Commissioner had ruled the Cabinet Office should release the documents to the BBC following an FOI request which dates back to 2009.

The Government’s new position is being portrayed by some as a U-turn. It had, after all, last week confirmed it planned to appeal the Information Commissioner’s ruling, saying that the documents should only be released once the independent Hillsborough Panel, set up AFTER the BBC’s FOI request was submitted, decided it was the right time to release them.

So what’s changed? Well not very much, in truth. The Government has simply said it is happy for the documents to be disclosed, but when the Hillsborough Panel decides they should be released, and that the families of the 96 victims get to see the documents first. As it happens, there is nothing in the terms of reference of the panel to promote the release of all the documents, a point discovered by the BBC’s FOI expert Martin Rosenbaum.

7. FOI: More from the council which wanted to charge for FOI…

Remember the case of Cheshire West and Chester Council, the authority which sent out a press release about its plans to charge for FOI requests?

It made its announcement and pledged to get a team of officers on the case to work out how they would actually do this.

Not much has been said of it since then – probably because they did what I did, and rang the Information Commissioner’s office only to be told that no, councils can’t just start charging for FOI requests.

Anyway, Cheshire West and Chester Council has come up with another way of silencing those who like to ask awkward questions: It made someone who is either on its payroll or no longer on its payroll sign an agreement not to submit FOI requests or Data Protection Act requests.

8. FOI: The council which asked for a birth certificate before processing an FOI request

Liverpool City Council hasn’t got the best track record for Freedom of Information requests. Earlier this year, it was forced to cough up to the fact it had actively doctored information which had been requested under the FOI Act. Indeed, as far back as 2007, the Information Commissioner was criticising the council for the way it handled FOI requests.

But despite that track record,  the city council appears to have set a new standard in awkwardness by asking an FOI requester to prove that they are who they say they are. Really.

Via whatdotheyknow.com, a Josephine Derby has been submitting a number of FOI requests about things you would suspect senior council officials and councillors might find a little awkward.

9. Two pictures, two days, one reason why many MPs should feel ashamed this week

The House of Commons - Monday, at around 6.30pm

Two pictures for you. The first is a photo I took of my TV – very technologically sophisticated, I know – at around 6.30pm on Monday. The second image, below, is a screenshot taken from the same chamber just after noon on Wednesday:

The House of Commons for PMQs - Wednesday, noon

The picture of the chamber  at the top includes just a sprinkling of MPs, mainly from the North West. The bottom picture shows a packed chamber, crammed to the rafters for a weekly event which – rightly or wrongly – is seen as the highpoint of the political week.

Why, in my opinion, should those two pictures shame many MPs? Simple – the picture at the top was taken during a debate in the release of documents relating to the 1989 Hillsborough disaster, at which 96 people lost their lives. For over 20 years, their families have fought to get all the facts. Only now, do they feel they are close to getting to see all the documents the government holds.

10. FOI officers hunting round-robin requests? Three ways to reduce that happening

An interesting post from the ever-good FOI Man today looking at the mountain of guidance communications staff in the NHS get hit with, including those dealing with FOIs.

It would appears FOI officers are expected to second-guess when an FOI request may be a ’round robin’ in the sense that it has been submitted to more than one body.

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