22 March 2022
This is the first blog in a new series of updates from Warren Seddon, Director of FOI and Transparency. His blog posts will provide a regular update on our FOI work and share key learnings to help practitioners and the wider FOI community understand our developing thinking and carry out their roles.
The past two years have highlighted how transparency and accountability are fundamental to our democracy - the impact of decisions made by public bodies throughout the pandemic have affected us all in some way.
At the start of the pandemic the ICO made clear, along with our colleagues internationally, that transparency about decision making and good record keeping during this period would be essential and a vital means of maintaining public trust. This remains the case. We also set out how we would take account of the significant pressures some organisations were facing. While being more flexible where appropriate, we continued to make regulatory decisions, uphold the legislation we oversee and provide advice.
I thought for my first blog, given it is almost the two-year anniversary of our regulatory posture being published, that this would be a good time to highlight some of the key Freedom of Information (FOI) rulings we made over this period. These help to show the immense importance of the FOI Act in improving public understanding about how and why decisions were being made in this period.
Informing public debate around COVID-19
Of course – despite the high public interest and need for transparency - FOI does not mean all information relating to the public sector’s response to the pandemic should be released. The law envisages that there will be circumstances where it is perfectly proper for information not to be disclosed at that time.
In several important cases during the pandemic we have therefore agreed that organisations were right to not disclose some sensitive information. This may be because it could significantly inhibit government policymaking or impact the safety of individuals. Examples of such cases included requests for the minutes of meetings of the Joint Biosecurity Centre and the movements of the Chief Medical Officer.
In other cases, however, we have required or advised disclosure of significant information about the pandemic that wouldn’t have been released without FOI. These details have often gone on to play a crucial role in informing public debate – including through the media.
From the early days of COVID-19, we received complaints about various requests made to government that were related to it. This included, for example, requests for details of ‘Exercise Cygnus’, the pandemic preparedness exercise conducted by the Government in 2016. In June 2021, we issued a decision notice ordering the disclosure of two key documents, the ‘NHS Surge and Triage’ and the ‘Adult Social Care and Community Care’ briefing papers that related to this exercise.
As the pandemic progressed, we started to see public focus shift and we received more complaints relating to information requests about why the various lockdown restrictions were being imposed. A good example of this can be found in the decision notice we issued last October requiring the release of information about the Equality Impact Assessments carried out before the introduction of the regulations underpinning the lockdowns. In doing so we noted that the disclosure was also a crucial part of publicly demonstrating compliance with Public Sector Equality Duties.
Around the same time, we concluded that the advice provided to DHSC around the changes for shielding policy in July 2020 should also be released. In both cases this information had informed decisions impacting the lives of millions of often vulnerable people who had a right to know why they were taken.
These are just some of the cases that show the crucial impact the ICO and FOI can have in enabling transparency. Our work in this area has helped inform public debate, shone a light on how decisions have been made, helped public bodies comply with the law and demonstrated the value of transparency. At the same time there are many more cases where public bodies have been proactive in releasing material and requests where information has been released to individuals, journalists and campaign groups openly that have not required our intervention and show the value of FOI in fostering trust.
Looking forward to the future
Since starting in my role as Director of FOI and Transparency last May, I’ve heard regularly that you want to know more about how we are managing our FOI work and some of the key decisions we have made. I know some of you have also been raising this with the new Information Commissioner, John Edwards, as part of his listening tour and want us to share more learning examples from our work.
So, we will keep updating you on how we are improving our service - including how we will tackle our backlog of cases - and put a spotlight on some of the significant recent decisions we have made and what learning can be drawn from them.
Let us know on our social channels – including on Twitter at @ICONews using the hashtag #FOIMatters - if there are any areas of our transparency work that you’d like to hear more about.
Warren Seddon is ICO Director of Freedom of Information and Transparency responsible for the ICO’s freedom of information (FOI) policy and guidance. Warren also oversees the handling of people’s complaints to the ICO over public authorities’ responses to requests for information under the FOI Act and Environmental Information Regulations (EIR).