Sunday, 9 January 2011

Transparency - a Murky Business




Since the Freedom of Information Act came into force I've used it a few times.  Have you ever tried the system?  Believe me your tenacity gets a thorough workout.

Two requests were handled speedily (and to my satisfaction) and the other four replied with a standard letter stating my request breeched the Data Protection Act, section xyz, paragraph abc.  I'm paraphrasing.  Two of those I thought were important enough to pursue so I did.  Neither was resolved and they became battles for access to information which ought to be in the public domain. It's time consuming interpreting the jargon and excuses and I can understand why many people give up.  One wrong word in your request and it's ammunition for the recipient to make life as difficult as possible for you.

The Deputy Prime Minister recently argued, in a high-profile speech, that openness should be extended to more organisations which benefit from public money 'yet who cannot be properly scrutinised'.  Few people would disagree with that statement.

But, tucked away in the civil service verbosity of a civil liberties package unveiled by Nick Clegg, are moves to exempt senior royals from freedom of information laws. The Royal Family is to be granted absolute protection from public scrutiny in a reform designed to draw a veil of secrecy over the affairs of the Queen, Prince Charles and Prince William.

Tom Brake, the MP for Carshalton and Wallington, is 'disappointed' by the failure to enforce more openness. Disappointed?  I'd be much happier if he'd said he was furious but he possibly doesn't want to fall out with the royals, although his card may well be already marked 'no honour under any circumstance'. Quite rightly he states "the Royal Family are recipients of substantial sums of public money.  They should be accountable through FOI. In my view it should be possible to differentiate matters that rightly should not be subject to FOI from those that should in terms of the expenditure of public money".

Buckingham Palace disagrees because they say the FOI has failed to protect the constitutional position of the monarchy and heir to the throne.  The spokesman explained that the sovereign has the right and duty to be consulted, to encourage and warn the government, and by extension, the heir to the throne had the constitutional right and duty to prepare himself for the role of King. 'This constitutional position relies on confidentiality so that all such correspondence is confidential,' said a spokesman.

I sense Charlie is building his defences prior to being promoted.

But there's good news for us hoi polloi. 'The Ministry of Justice intends to increase the number of organisations to which FOI requests can be made, bringing bodies such as the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Financial Services Ombudsman, the higher education admissions body UCAS and also all companies wholly owned by any number of public authorities.

What have the royals to hide?  We'll never know now, but if you read the end of the Independent's article, there have been quite a few revelations in their expenditure when they were open for FOI business.  MPs will be rubbing their hands with glee and desperately hoping that they're next in line for protection from FOI.

Nick Clegg isn't doing too well in government is he?  Most of his principles seem to have vanished like 'sna aff a dyke'  because of his desire to sit on the front bench and look authoritarian.  I won't mention the armoured car and his protests about government ministers using such transport. The damage he is doing to his party appears irrelevant.  Time a libdem backbencher stood up and told him a few home truths.

35 comments:

WitteringsfromWitney said...

We may well 'fall-out' on this one, SR.

I know nothing about you, other than from your blog, comments and tweets, I find you quite 'attractive' (but I digress) so let me turn this round.

As someone in receipt of public money (ie a state pension)I can assure you that were anyone to demand that I account for how that is spent would receive 'short-shrift'!

Sorry! Although just an opening salvo I have no doubt this 'discussion' will continue........?

Wrinkled Weasel said...

FOI requests under Labour were routinely finessed. That is to say, standard procedure was to string you along until you gave up.

Strangely, I only had to threaten to get an FOI in and the big cheese emailed me within an hour and resolved my problem.

Horses for courses?

lazaruszine said...

Protecting the royal leeches, typical. Too tired to even work myself into a furor over that.

If you think getting information through the FOI act is difficult though, SR, I heartily encourage you test your patience to the limit by contacting companies about their ingredients. Being a vegan and trying to get information on such esoteric ingredients as unspecificied humetants, emulsifiers and 'natural flavourings' is a test of willpower, I assure you. You sort of end up in a world where you're convinced 'they' are out to get you and everything red is died with the blood of kittens (although thankfully British tea companies avoid dying Assam with animal bloods).

subrosa said...

Exactly WW and it is the Data Protection Act which is used. Have you ever read that piece of legislation? You need a lifetime's experience with legal jargon to understand it.

Now I never thought of doing that. Thanks for the tip. :)

subrosa said...

Now lazaruszine, I have every sympathy with you about ingredients. Before Christmas I thought it would be a good idea to give a Soda Stream to a member of the family. They are allergic to a certain E-number so I wrote to Soda Stream asking for a list of E numbers (if any) in their syrups. No answer. I've since written 4 other emails. No answer.

In my efforts to get what I thought would be a handy appliance I'm ignored. Of course I won't buy something which can't be used (the syrups are specific to the machine and without them it only makes soda water). Rather expensive way of drinking soda water.

Inmy ignorance I known nothing about a vegan lifestyle except that certain items I purchase are marked 'suitable for vegans'. It can't be easy for you.

You're surely joking about British tea.

subrosa said...

You flatterer WFW. :)

I regard the state pension part of the law of the land. That is I work for 40+ years, contribute a certain amount through my earnings, then get that amount back in my old (?) age as an amount to keep me from dying too quickly. I contributed that money to the state's coffers for the purpose of ensuring I would have healthcare free at the point of access and that which I mention above.

Had a wee google to see if Queenie paid here NHI etc but couldn't find anything. That's not to say she doesn't of course. :)

Royalty have every right to keep certain matters confidential. When they apply - and receive - millions of £s in grants to build fences round Balmoral, then I think I have a right to know how that money was spent.

What's wrong with that? Over to you...

WitteringsfromWitney said...

SR: "You flatter you"? sorry, over my head - bit thick this end, due its an 'age thing', which you are too young to suffer from.......Anyway,

The difference twixt HRH and me building a fence with state income is.......?

Digressing, I will admit that with the ability of HRH's descendants to multiply at a rate akin to backward tribes with no idea of contraception, we do have a problem subsidy-wise and perhaps that should be reviewed.......

I think the nub of the matter is whether one is a Royalist or not and if one is, then it should be 'no questions asked'?

Whether one is a Royalist or not, can a price be put on what the Royals bring to this country financially, in tourism?

Over to you......

cynicalHighlander said...

WfW "Whether one is a Royalist or not, can a price be put on what the Royals bring to this country financially, in tourism?"

I have heard that for decades but never has that been backed up by evidence and that is why a large pinch of salt has to be used.

If the royals can justify their worth then royalties can be paid but until then its just wishful thinking.

e.g. How many tourists came here specifically because of them rather than as an add on bonus in their holiday? A small percentage I would guess.

WitteringsfromWitney said...

cH: As no 'evidence' has been produced as to how much the Royals 'bring in' - akin to the lack of a cost/benefit analysis of EU membership - I am open-minded. I believe in one but not the other as I can argue my case against one of the two.

The Royals worth is unquantifiable until such time as a detailed cost/benefit is done and until then I think that any criticism of them is unfounded and unwarranted (sorry SR)

When I blog I always ensure that any criticism is backed by 'provenance', or proof,or if not given I can provide it, and until then I do not criticise. (sorry again SR)

Unless of course you know better?

Observer said...

There shouldn't be a conflict between the data protection act & freedom of information requests, because if you are asking something about a person which is none of your business then freedom of information doesn't apply.

It's really not difficult to separate the two concepts, those that conflate them to not answer a question do so because they want to.

If a freedom of information request intrudes on a person's privacy then you just redact the relevant bits & explain why.

cynicalHighlander said...

WfW So I or the MSM say that there are green men on Mars its up to you to prove me/them wrong if I haven't misunderstood you, which I disagree with.

Before anyone can make a statement as fact they have to justify that position in someway by realistic logic or factual facts. As such its up to the royals to justify their position not us to deny there position when all the facts are not at our disposal.

lazaruszine said...

SR: American tea companies have been plagued with accusations that their 'natural flavourings and colourants' are made from animal blood, especially Lipton, the E.G. Smith vegan collective being unconvinced that they don't use such materials or derivatives in their products. Tetley and most recognisable Brit brands are sage though :D In fact Britain is the place to be for vegans, with the major sugar companies generally avoiding animal bone char for their refining processes. If only more things were marked suitable!

As for the Soda Stream problem, I can see your frustration. Most companies that put contact addresses seem to filter emails enquiring as to product ingredients straight to the recycle bin! I didn't know you could still get SStreams though!

WitteringsfromWitney said...

cH: As a Cynic you appear to have lost the ability to reason.

If you say there are green men on Mars then prove it, until then I don't have to disprove it - although it is possible that there may be one or two in the HoC but then again no analysis has been done.....

The preceding paragraph renders your second totally void! Why should the Royals disprove something that has not been proven?

The Royal Family receive state subsidy and EU grants - perfectly legal and how they spend that money is up to them.

cynicalHighlander said...

WfW Quite 'Prove that the royals justify their existence' its a simple as that.
If they can then openess will be a dawdle in the park for them. Not have government say that they are worth the price, evidence is the key.

WitteringsfromWitney said...

cH: for God's sake....... the Royals don't have to prove anything. This entire argument was initiated by SR querying whether the Royals should be allowed to put up a fence around Balmoral.

To those attempting to argue that the Royals are not worth the money given to them comes the responsibility of proving the assertion. When they do, I am quite prepared to argue the case against them.

To say that the unaccused must first post a defence is contrary to all reason, surely. Innocent until proven guilty? The onus must be on the accuser to present his case, not on the innocent to first prove their innocence.

In any event, should we not be asking those CEOs of fake charities to justify how their money is spent before we attack our Royal Family? Should we not be concerned about where all our foreign aid goes and how it is spent first? Should we not be concerned and asking about the subsidies that the energy companies get in order to make money through their imposition of an unproven science?

Methinks there is an order of priorities here that is being overlooked!

Anyway, as an aside, am now off to bed so further discussion must of necessity be delayed until the morrow.

My apologies to our host for taking up her space with a private agument!

subrosa said...

WfW, sorry I didn't make myself clear. If you applied for a grant to build a fence then the public have a right to know you did. It's public money.

I also think it's important we know how much we spent on 'protecting' the royals and the hangers on.

It's nothing to do with royalty, it's to do with the use of public money. I don't care if it was me receiving public money or them. It should be recorded somewhere public. I bet our pensions are.

Up here I bet Billy Connelly brings more money in from tourism that Balmoral.

subrosa said...

Quite a few tourists like the thought of the Queen and of course Diana CH, but that will fade once Queenie gives up.

We shouldn't be supporting so many 'homes' and hangers on. It's an old fashioned concept now.

subrosa said...

Well there is Observer and I had the confidential help of a couple of FOI officers with my reapplications. Still no joy. Recently I haven't had the inclination to follow up on these because I feel I'm banging my head off a brick wall. Others have had the same experience and two have taken the matter up with the Ombudsman. I await that outcome.

subrosa said...

I didn't realise that the UK welcomed vegans lazaruszine. You should set up a holiday company purely for vegans and get a cook who knows the score.

Neither did I lazaruzine. When I was in the attic digging for something in December I saw my old (ancient) one and thought that would be a good idea for this person as they like fizzy drinks but are very restricted. They're very posh now though - and expensive!

subrosa said...

No it's not up to them WfW. If someone receives a specific grant for a specific purpose then it must be used on that. If I received a grant to rebuild my garage and used the money for something else then the treasury would be perfectly within its rights to reclaim the money.

Another point of course is how this new legislation hasn't been discussed in Parliament and the weakness of Buck House's response. But they are other matters...

Conan the Librarian™ said...

Ah, the Royals and how good value for money they are.
If they were sat in the foyer of Buckingham palace signing autographs to citizens of republics touring the quaint "Kingdom" I may agree.

But they don't, so I won't.

subrosa said...

Yer a man of principle Conan. Good for you.

All Seeing Eye said...

Maybe it's a matter of priority for me but I'm less interested in the Royal Family not coming under the scope of FOI's against all of the fake charities funded by the taxpayer to preach to us and to lobby government.

If Clegg wasn't such a hypocrite then those would be inside the scope of the legislation.

Frankly with the Civil List now gone Windsor money has dropped right down the list of things to be worried about. A couple of years ago they were refused a one-off £40m to carry out structural repairs to palaces because it was seen as too much - the same amount we pay to the EU *every day*.

subrosa said...

Whilst I agree with your point ASE, it concerns me that anyone, including the royals, are able to 'opt out' in this manner.

Crinkly & Ragged Arsed Philosophers said...

In a democracy they neither serve purpose or provide a reason.

And as a republican and citizen as opposed to subject, their existence is all the evidence I need to register my objection to any dispensations they demand or costs associated with the nepotist positions they claim to hold.

Remove them from their titular positions and we are rid of the anachronism of Lords and Ladies whether by right of birth or dubious honour.

WitteringsfromWitney said...

Recognising that I am in a minority of one on this question SR, it would perhaps be easier if we all agreed to disagree.

I do agree, as said previously, that the number of Royals being 'supported' does need culling, however one small point picking up on C&RAP - were the country a republic with a President, people would still be paying just as much........

Derek said...

Looks like 'Mam's' horse lost again.

They serve no useful purpose to the public, unless you like watching the spectacle of past diety lording it over the hoi poloi. Very pretty I'm sure. But whilst I recognise privacy should be sacrosanct, when public money is being looked to as it appears to have been when the allegation was made that Her Majesty was seeking Winter Fuel Payment (I find it hard to believe, and most likely a ruse for some press person), then that public money should be accountable for publicly.

What is less well known about the 'Royals', is their huge amount of wealth and control of land, both here and abroad. Who controls the land, controls food supply. The ability of the Monarch has been compromised by politicians, yet that ability remains, albeit with restrictions that if challenged could cause unpleasant repercussions for themselves. It's a very complicated web that I have only read about and cannot comment further.

I don't draw state pension - yet, and having found out through Citizens Advice supported by Work & Pensions, that the required period for NI payments has been reduced, and that I had paid in excess to requirements and that the excess could be reclaimed, I did so. I also stopped my direct debit as advised by W & P for NI payments (self employed class 2). My state pension has been made up from my contributions - it's my money. And HMG have been taking it since I was sixteen. if anyone wants to know what I'll be spending my £107 per week on, I'll happily tell them - despite it being my money - and nobodies business save mine. Now who gets that money if I croak at 64yrs and 364 days?

F.O.I., well, they have 'their methods' shall we say, of not divulging what they do not want you to know. And when Thames Valley Constabulary were asked under F.O.I. for certain data, it came to being provided at a cost - £50 or so for a half page of data after a long-winded wrangling session. Not an application I had direct dealings with, but the motoring association I was in did.

Crinkly & Ragged Arsed Philosophers said...

WfW: with all due respect your argument on Royalty V President is based on assumption not fact.

For a start I very much doubt the true costs of all the Royals and their network of favours have ever been exposed to a truly comprehensive and forensic accounting process.

Second cost would depend very much on the model of Presidency adopted. The American model is one of an executive, a top tier of the political process. A role Royalty doesn't fill by acting as it does as a tinsel-town figurehead.

Which is nearer the role played by the President of Ireland, and I doubt very much if the costs associated with the Irish model are any where near those of the Royals.

And that's before we include the costs associated with the upkeep and welfare of the ermine vermin.

Billy said...

There are exemptions to the Data Protection Act Subrosa that you may be able to use. At present I am moving further up the appeals procedure in trying to get the date when a person passed their driving test from the DVLA. This person is a Renfrewshire councillor who has been involved in fraud which includes driving for years illegally without a license and claiming mileage allowance for doing so. I have asked for this information under Exemption 29(1)(a) The prevention or detection of crime as I am investigating fraud by Renfrewshire councillors. There are other exemptions that you might be able to use as well.

subrosa said...

I'm slowly coming round to your opinion RA. What I've often wondered is how much the White House brings in in tourist income compared with all the 'homes' we pay for our royals.

Most people I know, if within 1000 miles of Washington, want to see the White House, regardless of the political shade of the incumbent.

subrosa said...

Aye WfW, we'll have to agree to disagree on this. I'll still respect you in the morning though. ;)

subrosa said...

Thanks Billy. I'm off to find out your source. Much appreciated.

subrosa said...

This post seems to have been too long for automatic publication but I will post it:

Derek has left a new comment on your post "Transparency - a Murky Business":

Looks like 'Mam's' horse lost again.

They serve no useful purpose to the public, unless you like watching the spectacle of past diety lording it over the hoi poloi. Very pretty I'm sure. But whilst I recognise privacy should be sacrosanct, when public money is being looked to as it appears to have been when the allegation was made that Her Majesty was seeking Winter Fuel Payment (I find it hard to believe, and most likely a ruse for some press person), then that public money should be accountable for publicly.

What is less well known about the 'Royals', is their huge amount of wealth and control of land, both here and abroad. Who controls the land, controls food supply. The ability of the Monarch has been compromised by politicians, yet that ability remains, albeit with restrictions that if challenged could cause unpleasant repercussions for themselves. It's a very complicated web that I have only read about and cannot comment further.

I don't draw state pension - yet, and having found out through Citizens Advice supported by Work & Pensions, that the required period for NI payments has been reduced, and that I had paid in excess to requirements and that the excess could be reclaimed, I did so. I also stopped my direct debit as advised by W & P for NI payments (self employed class 2). My state pension has been made up from my contributions - it's my money. And HMG have been taking it since I was sixteen. if anyone wants to know what I'll be spending my £107 per week on, I'll happily tell them - despite it being my money - and nobodies business save mine. Now who gets that money if I croak at 64yrs and 364 days?

F.O.I., well, they have 'their methods' shall we say, of not divulging what they do not want you to know. And when Thames Valley Constabulary were asked under F.O.I. for certain data, it came to being provided at a cost - £50 or so for a half page of data after a long-winded wrangling session. Not an application I had direct dealings with, but the motoring association I was in did.

Derek said...

Thanks Rose, it was one of two that evaporated yesterday. The other much shorter and elsewhere. I usually get a warning of URL too long (naughty boy), but this came up as saved. Oh well, thanks anyway.

subrosa said...

No problem Derek. It appeared in my moderator email so I thought that's what had happened. Sometimes I get the 'too long' notification yet it publishes. Ah, the pleasures of blogger.

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