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Parliament's take on Freedom of Information

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The House of Commons was due last week to explain why, unlike the hundreds of organisations that regularly respond to Freedom of Information Requests through charity website whatdotheyknow.com, it has refused to do so.

It didn't, and said it will now offer an explanation later this month. Maybe.

Whatdotheyknow is one of a cluster of websites sponsored by online charity mysociety. Other sites include theyworkforyou and writetothem. The aim of mysociety is to foster democratic debate by demystifying the processes by which the public can interact with government and their representatives.

Whatdotheyknow provides a simple and easy to use mechanism for submitting Freedom of Information (FoI) Requests. Would-be users find the organisation they wish to quiz, type in their FoI request, then sit back and wait for a reply. In most cases, there is no charge – although where the costs of complying with the request would exceed £450, an authority can either refuse to fulfil it or levy a charge.

The saga begins back in January of this year when mysociety founder and director, Tom Steinberg, sent in an FoI request to the House of Commons asking for "electronic copies of any documents produced by PICT discussing or evaluating the possible deployment of electronic petitioning systems in Parliament".

The answer was a fairly definite 'no' or 'yes', depending on your point of view. The official response was that the information requested was "subject to Parliamentary copyright which restricts the reproduction of Parliamentary material - this would mean that the material could not posted to the GovernmentSpy web pages without breaching copyright".

There then followed a request for an alternative email address for correspondence "that does not automatically republish responses and attachments onto the internet". So no joy.

Mysociety tried again in August, when mysociety developer and publicwhip founder Francis Irving submitted the same request. Same reply. The House of Commons is happy to provide the information requested, even in the knowledge that the requester intends to republish the information, but it won’t deliver it to an address which automatically republishes.

Once again, issues of Parliamentary Copyright are cited. This time, however, the requester would not let the issue go. The last exchange between Mr Irving and the House of Commons resulted in a series of questions for the Commons FoI department to answer, and an undertaking by the Commons to "endeavour to provide... a response no later than Thursday 9 October 2008".

Come Thursday.... no response. In fact, it seems the deadline for a response has now been pushed back to October 23.

That's not to say the issue isn't being taken seriously. On Tuesday a spokesperson for the Commons did explain to the Reg that this "is the subject of a careful internal review, in which all options are being explored".

We await the result of those deliberations with interest. On the surface, if there are no objections at all to the release of the material, or to its subsequent re-publishing, then the Commons objection looks frivolous.

Speaking to the Reg, Mr Irving said: "My personal interest is in seeing parliamentary ICT being done better. They could benefit a great deal from allowing others to see and comment on their plans.

"Their refusal to release a response on a legal technicality could be seen as misuse of public funds, since it could result in duplicate requests being made by others with an interest in the same issue."

On the Parliamentary front, interest is stirring. Jo Swinson, MP for East Dunbartonshire, who has already shown a strong interest in open government, is investigating the matter.

Full marks, however, to Cabinet Office Minster and major player in the field of e-governance, Tom Watson. His recent blog on the issue is succinct and to the point: "Oh Good Grief". That about sums it up. ®

Bootnote

The only other organisation to refuse, as far as we know, was Rother Council – and they were promptly slapped back into line by the Information Commissioner.

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