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Posts Tagged ‘Freedom of Information

Factchecking on Freedom of Information: Has FOI really done nothing to improve accountability?

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“We have a wretched Government here which has… caused the resignation of me and many others, because it was this Government that introduced the Freedom of Information Act” – Conservative MP Anthony Steen, on being exposed in the MPs’ expenses scandal.

There’s been a lot of coverage this week about a Ministry of Justice study which among other things claimed, according to the Guardian that “Civil servants do not believe the Freedom of Information Act has increased accountability”.

This suggestion seemed surprising, given the number of high-profile cases where FOI has helped expose abusive behaviour by our public officials, most notably the MPs expenses scandal. Although the damning details were ultimately made public via a leak, the writer and activist Heather Brooke had fought a long and well-publicised legal campaign to establish that Parliamentary expenses were subject to FOI, and it is widely acknowledged that the existence of FOI requests by Brooke and others helped to precipitate the news story.

This is the case even for some of those exposed in the scandal. When the Conservative MP Anthony Steen was forced to resign after it emerged that he’d spent £90,000 of public money on his country home, he specifically blamed the Freedom of Information Act, saying:

“I think I have behaved impeccably. I’ve done nothing criminal. As far as I’m concerned and as of this day, I don’t know what the fuss is about…

We have a wretched government here which has completely mucked up the system and caused the resignation of me and many others because it was this government that introduced the Freedom of Information Act, and it is this Government that insisted on the things which caught me on the wrong foot… What right does the public have to interfere with my private life? None.”

It’s difficult to think of a clearer example of FOI-induced accountability than this. So I had a look through the Ministry of Justice study. Here are some extracts:

“FOIA has resulted…  in the disclosure of significant amounts of information which has enabled the public to hold public authorities to account.” (page 60)

“The Government believes that the expansion of the Act… will continue to promote openness, transparency and accountability across the public sector.” (page 66)

“% of FOI officers who agreed that the following objectives were being achieved:

- increased accountability                                                   78%” (page 84)

“surveys of officials and stakeholders across public authorities found that the FOIA had indeed made central and local government more accountable” (page 88)

“the evidence suggests that the FOIA has had considerable success in achieving its primary objectives of greater openness and accountability… Claims that the FOIA would undermine civil service neutrality or ministerial accountability have likewise proved unfounded” (page 90)

Conclusion: The FOI legislation set out to improve transparency and accountability, and evidence to date indicates this has been achieved…” (page 99)

Whoever told the Guardian that the study showed “civil servants do not believe the FOI act has increased accountability” appears to have been mistaken…

Written by Richard Wilson

February 20, 2012 at 7:26 am

Irony levels around UK government secrecy policies now dangerously high, warn scientists…

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Judge rules that judges who get sacked or reprimanded should enjoy anonymity…

From The Guardian

The government and the judiciary can continue to conceal the names of more than 170 misbehaving judges, a freedom of information tribunal has ruled.

The judge heading the tribunal decided that some members of the judiciary who have been sacked or reprimanded for misconduct would suffer “great distress” if details of their misdemeanours were made public.

Written by Richard Wilson

June 18, 2009 at 8:47 am

The 98 MPs who tried to cover up their expense claims by exempting themselves from the Freedom of Information Act

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In May 2007, 98 MPs voted to exempt themselves from the Freedom of Information Act, with the apparent aim of stopping the public from finding out the details of their Parliamentary expense claims.

The measure was ultimately defeated, and after a long legal battle, the courts last year ordered the publication of the expense claims made by MPs. The government, however, continued to drag its feet until the information was finally (and now famously) leaked to the Telegraph newspaper, amid much wailing and gnashing of teeth from the Parliamentary authorities.

Amid the uproar that the last week of revelations has caused among the wider public, attention has understandably focussed on the worst excesses of the worst offenders – the claims for non-existent mortgages, exorbitant gardening bills, and the famous “moat-cleaning” expense.

But alongside this, it now seems worth taking a closer look at the people who helped create the environment in which this behaviour was able to flourish – and who fought so hard to stop the truth from being exposed.

Interestingly, several of the MPs – such as Elliot Morley, Julie Kirkbride and Tony McNulty – who have now been identified as serial abusers of the Parliamentary expenses system, were also among the 98 MPs who, in May 2007, voted to exempt themselves from the Freedom of Information Act. But there are also many others who, to date, seem to have largely escaped public scrutiny. There’s a detailed summary here by the Campaign for Freedom of Information of the bill in its various stages. From this we can see that:

78 of those who supported the bill are Labour MPs:

Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich West)
Alan Campbell (Tynemouth)
Alun Michael (Cardiff South and Penarth)
Andrew Dismore (Hendon)
Angela C. Smith (Sheffield Hillsborough)
Angela Eagle (Wallasey)
Anne Snelgrove (South Swindon)
Bob Ainsworth (Coventry North East)
Bob Laxton (Derby North)
Brian H. Donohoe (Ayrshire Central)
Caroline Flint (Don Valley)
Claire Ward (Watford)
Clive Betts (Sheffield Attercliffe)
Clive Efford (Eltham)
Colin Burgon (Elmet)
Dari Taylor (Stockton South)
Dave Watts (St Helens North)
David Cairns (Inverclyde)
David Clelland (Tyne Bridge)
David Lammy (Tottenham)
David Marshall (Glasgow East)
David Wright (Telford)
Denis Murphy (Wansbeck)
Desmond Turner (Brighton Kemptown)
Doug Henderson (Newcastle upon Tyne North)
Elliot Morley (Scunthorpe)
Frank Doran (Aberdeen North)

Frank Roy (Motherwell and Wishaw)
Fraser Kemp (Houghton and Washington East)
Gareth Thomas (Harrow West)
George Mudie (Leeds East)
Gillian Merron (Lincoln)
Graham Allen (Nottingham North)
Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead)
Huw Irranca-Davies
Ian McCartney (Makerfield)
Ian Stewart (Eccles)
Ivan Lewis (Bury South)
James Plaskitt (Warwick and Leamington)
Janet Anderson (Rossendale and Darwen)
Jim Dowd (Lewisham West)
Jim Fitzpatrick (Poplar and Canning Town)
Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire North)
Joan Ryan (Enfield North)
John Heppell (Nottingham East)
John McFall (West Dunbartonshire)
John Robertson (Glasgow North West)
John Spellar (Warley)
Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford)
Keith Hill (Streatham)
Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton North East)
Kevan Jones (North Durham)
Khalid Mahmood (Birmingham Perry Barr)
Laura Moffatt (Crawley)
Liz Blackman (Erewash)
Malcolm Wicks (Croydon North)
Maria Eagle (Liverpool Garston)
Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside)
Martin Salter (Reading West)
Martyn Jones (Clwyd South)
Meg Munn (Sheffield Heeley)
Michael Foster (Worcester)
Mike Hall (Weaver Vale)
Nick Brown (Newcastle upon Tyne East and Wallsend)
Parmjit Dhanda (Gloucester)
Phil Woolas (Oldham East and Saddleworth)
Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley)
Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes)
Siôn Simon (Birmingham Erdington)
Stephen Pound (Ealing North)
Steve McCabe (Birmingham Hall Green)
Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough)
Thomas McAvoy (Rutherglen and Hamilton West)
Tom Harris (Glasgow South)
Tom Levitt (High Peak)
Tom Watson (West Bromwich East)
Tony Lloyd (Manchester Central)
Tony McNulty (Harrow East)
Wayne David (Caerphilly)

The remaining 20 are all Conservative:

Andrew Pelling (Croydon Central)
Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and the Weald)
Ann Winterton (Congleton)
David Maclean (Penrith and the Border)
David Ruffley (Bury St Edmunds)
David Tredinnick (Bosworth)
Greg Knight (East Yorkshire)
James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend East)
John Butterfill (Bournemouth West)
John Randall (Uxbridge)
Julian Lewis (New Forest East)
Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove)
Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin)
Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)
Peter Atkinson (Hexham)
Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst)
Simon Burns (West Chelmsford)
Tim Boswell (Daventry)
Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth East)

Strikingly, only 26 of Parliament’s 650 MPs turned up to oppose the bill – 5 Conservatives, 9 Labour, 9 Liberal Democrats, 1 Plaid Cymru MP and the Respect MP George Galloway.

George Monbiot on another misuse of UK government’s “sweeping powers”

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From The Guardian

The villagers have marched, demonstrated, and sent in letters and petitions. Some people tried to stop the company from cutting down trees by standing in the way. Their campaign was entirely peaceful. But the power company discovered that it was legally empowered to shut the protests down.

Using the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, it obtained an injunction against the villagers and anyone else who might protest. This forbids them from “coming to, remaining on, trespassing or conducting any demonstrations, or protesting or other activities” on land near the lake. If anyone breaks this injunction they could spend five years in prison.

The act, parliament was told, was meant to protect women from stalkers. But as soon as it came on to the statute books, it was used to stop peaceful protest. To obtain an injunction, a company needs to show only that someone feels “alarmed or distressed” by the protesters, a requirement so vague that it can mean almost anything. Was this an accident of sloppy drafting? No. Timothy Lawson-Cruttenden, the solicitor who specialises in using this law against protesters, boasts that his company “assisted in the drafting of the … Protection from Harassment Act 1997″. In 2005 parliament was duped again, when a new clause, undebated in either chamber, was slipped into the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act. It peps up the 1997 act, which can now be used to ban protest of any kind.

Mr Lawson-Cruttenden, who represented RWE npower, brags that the purpose of obtaining injunctions under the act is “the criminalisation of civil disobedience”. One advantage of this approach is that very low standards of proof are required: “hearsay evidence … is admissable in civil courts”. The injunctions he obtains criminalise all further activity, even though, as he admits, “any allegations made remain untested and unproven”.

Last week, stung by bad publicity, npower backed down. The villagers had just started to celebrate when they made a shocking discovery: they now feature on an official list of domestic extremists.

The parallels between AIDS denial and Holocaust negationism

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In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I look at the twin delusions of AIDS denial and Holocaust negationism, and examine some of the parallels between them.

AIDS denialists – who will often describe themselves as “AIDS dissidents” or “AIDS sceptics” – are those who deny the overwhelming scientific evidence that HIV causes AIDS. They may believe that HIV is harmless, or deny that there is evidence the virus even exists. In the early 1980s, soon after AIDS was discovered, the psychiatrist Casper Schmidt suggested that the disease was a “group fantasy”, the product of an ” epidemic of shame-induced depression” among gay men, caused by “a vast, society-wide conservative swing” culminating in the election of Ronald Reagan. “One can only hope”, Schmidt concluded, “that we wake up from the trance, and soon”. As with many of the most vocal “dissidents”, Schmidt’s denial seems to have motivated, in part, by a refusal to acknowledge his own illness. Tragically, Casper Schmidt died from AIDS in the mid-1990s – yet even now some die-hard denialists continue to cite his work in support of their claims.

Towards the end of the 80s, amid growing evidence that AIDS was killing thousands, the US virologist Peter Duesberg began challenging the scientific consensus that the disease was caused by a virus, HIV. Duesberg’s work with retroviruses – the class to which HIV belongs – had led him to conclude that all such viruses were essentially harmless. Rather than revise this view in the face of strong and growing epidemiological proof of a close correlation between the presence of AIDS and HIV infection, Duesberg chose instead to reject the new evidence and hang on to his old theory – a position he has stuck to ever since.

Duesberg’s arguably most poisonous claim is that AIDS can in fact be caused by the medications given to HIV sufferers to control the disease, such as the drug AZT. It was partly under Duesberg’s influence that the South African government of Thabo Mbeki chose to delay the public availability of anti-retroviral drugs – a decision which, according to a recent Harvard study – may have cost over 300,000 lives.

Holocaust negationists deny some or all of the established historical facts about Nazi atrocities during World War II. They may refuse to accept that the Holocaust happened at all, or they may – as David Irving has done – concede that atrocities took place but deny that the extermination of Jews and other minorities was a deliberate organisational policy, authorised at the highest level. They may, like Irving, significantly downplay the number of people who died at the hands of the Nazis. Or they may engage in “moral negationism”, acknowledging that Germany persecuted Jews but suggesting that the war-time abuses committed by Soviet or British forces could somehow cancel or diminish the moral gravity of Nazi crimes. Many of these kinds of arguments can be seen in the comment responses to the piece that I wrote about David Irving here.

David Irving has famously denied that he is a Holocaust denier – and went so far as to sue the writer Deborah Lipstadt for having described him in those terms. Some of this seems to come down to semantics. If we define a “Holocaust denier” as someone who is in denial about the established historical facts relating to the Holocaust, then even someone who acknowledges some level of atrocity – as David Irving does – would nonetheless fall into that category.

After a lengthy court battle in which Irving’s historical writings were examined in fine detail, the libel suit against Deborah Lipstadt famously failed, with the judge concluding that:

Irving has for his own ideological reasons persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence; that for the same reasons he has portrayed Hitler in an unwarrantedly favourable light, principally in relation to his attitude towards and responsibility for the treatment of the Jews; that he is an active Holocaust denier; that he is anti-Semitic and racist and that he associates with right-wing extremists who promote neo-Nazism.

Irving has sought to portray himself as a fearless and impartial historical investigator, motivated solely by a desire to establish the truth, bravely challenging the orthodox account of the events of World War II. But the Lipstadt libel trial revealed quite the opposite. Driven by a preconceived attachment to an extreme ideological position, Irving had systematically abused the truth, deliberately misrepresenting his historical sources in order to make them support his political views.

Appearing as an expert witness, the historian Richard Evans, who had painstakingly reviewed Irving’s work, confessed to being shocked at the “sheer depth of duplicity” he had found. Irving had, Evans concluded, “fallen so far short of the standards of scholarship customary among historians that he doesn’t deserve to be called a historian at all”, suggesting that Irving relied on his audience lacking “either the time or the expertise” to check up on his sources.

Another feature of Irving’s work is his tendency to seize on tenuous reinterpretations of the existing evidence and treat them as a knockdown refutation of the claim he is attacking. Irving has argued that forensic tests taken by an unqualified investigator on the walls of the Auschwitz gas chambers in the late 1980s proved that they could not have been used for mass-executions, later claiming that “more women died on the back seat of Edward Kennedy’s car at Chappaquiddick than ever died in a gas chamber in Auschwitz”.

Irving also applied a clear double-standard in his evaluation of the evidence. At the same time as he embraced tenuous forensic tests taken more than 40 years after the end of the World War II, he was dismissive of the detailed eyewitness testimonies of the thousands of Holocaust survivors still alive at the time.

We see a similar double-standard with many of those who deny the link between HIV and AIDS. A 3-month investigation by Science magazine found no evidence to back Duesberg’s claims. Mainstream AIDS researchers accused him of constructing his arguments through “selective reading of the scientific literature, dismissing evidence that contradicts his theses, requiring impossibly definitive proof, and dismissing outright studies marked by inconsequential weaknesses.”

One big problem faced by both AIDS denialists and Holocaust denialists is the difficulty of explaining why their arguments are almost universally rejected. Here again, the rhetoric is often striking similar. Hardcore AIDS denialists insist that the disease is a “hoax”, a “myth”, and a “deceptive and deadly scam” perpetrated by the “medical industrial complex”, and offer us “Ten reasons HIV is not the cause of AIDS”. Hardcore negationists, meanwhile, talk dismissively about the “Holohoax”, which they describe as a “myth”, perpetrated by “Zionists” with an “agenda of world domination”, and offer us “Ten reasons why the Holocaust is a fraud”.

UK government plans blanket monitoring of emails, phone calls, and web browsing – while insisting that “no formal decision” has yet been taken

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The Times reports that the UK government is considering plans for a £12 billion database to monitor and store the emails, phone calls and web browsing records of everyone in the country. While the Home Office is reportedly at pains to insist – echoing the rhetoric in the run-up to the Iraq war – that “no formal decision” has yet been taken to go ahead, The Times says that the government has already committed up to £1 billion to the project.

In “Don’t Get Fooled Again“, I look at the arguments used by politicians to grant themselves “sweeping new powers”, and the unintended consequences that result when checks on government power are undermined.

Contacted by the dark side…

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A lot things seem to be happening at once right now: The Guardian has kindly featured an article I’ve written about the latest shenanigans with the Foreign Office, my big sister Charlotte, and the extremist group who killed her in December 2000, Palipehutu-FNL. Burundi’s bad boys recently made contact with me via a supposedly neutral intermediary called Dieudonné Haburagira.

Less than 24 hours after that article was published, the Foreign Office gave their response to the Freedom of Information Act request I made several weeks ago, asking for details of their secret (not any more) meeting with the Palipehutu-FNL leader, Agathon Rwasa.  It makes for an amusing read – the letter listing their reasons for withholding most of what I’ve requested is significantly longer than the document containing the meagre information that they are prepared to give… 

More background on this here – and there’s a burgeoning Facebook campaign on the issue here.

PS – and here’s what my Mum thinks.

Written by Richard Wilson

August 27, 2008 at 7:48 pm

British MPs sceptical of UK government denials over Iraq torture

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The Observer reports that a committee of MPs has cast doubt on UK government denials over the use of torture in Iraq. Evidence heard during the trial of soldiers implicated in the killing of an Iraqi prisoner, Baha Musa, suggested that the troops had been ordered to use coercive interrogation techniques, including hooding and ‘stress positions’. Now the Parliamentary select committee on human rights has accused the Ministry of Defence of blocking their efforts to trace responsibility further up the command chain. The committee also suggests that public assurances given by former armed forces minister Adam Ingram, and Lieutenant General Robin Brims, have been contradicted by evidence that UK troops had been using banned interrogation techniques following legal advice from their superiors in Iraq.  

Wide-ranging freedom of information laws in the United States have helped to ensure intense public scrutiny of the conduct of American forces in Iraq. A series of legal-rulings compelling the release of previously classified government documents have helped to illuminate the role played by senior figures in helping to make situations such as Abu Ghraib possible.  In Don’t Get Fooled Again I was able to draw on many of these primary sources in seeking to understand Abu Ghraib and other related cases.

But here in the UK, the picture is still far more murky. So far, our senior officials have largely escaped any implication that they ordered or condoned the use of torture or other abusive treatment in Iraq. Cases such as the killing of Baha Musa have largely been seen – as was Abu Ghraib at one time – as the work of ‘bad apples’ rather than the result of systematic, officially-sanctioned, abuses. Britons have so far been able to console themselves over the various fiascos relating to Iraq with the assurance that at least ‘our boys’ would never engage in the kind of systematic depravity pursued by US forces at Abu Ghraib. But in the absence, here in Britain, of the kind of judicially-enforced transparency made possible in the US by robust freedom of information laws, it’s tempting to wonder whether the UK chain of command may simply have been in a better position to cover its tracks.

Written by Richard Wilson

July 27, 2008 at 10:45 am