Category Archives: Rants

FOI Hate: Response from Staffordshire County Council

Following my letter to my Staffordshire county councillor, Terry Finn, I received the response below. I’ve some comments below.

Councillor Finn has asked me to respond to your recent communication. Thank you for your comments which have been noted.

Shame my councillor couldn’t be bothered to respond himself. He could have at least responded with his own thoughts and included the response from the officer (the author of this letter).

Staffordshire County Council believe It’s absolutely right that all local authorities are open and transparent about how they use taxpayers’ money to provide the services that residents, communities and businesses need.

Staffordshire County Council answered almost 2,700 Freedom of Information and the similar Environmental Information Regulation requests last year. While we fully support people’s right to have access to information, we do have concerns about the bureaucracy involved since the Freedom of Information Act came into force, and the way that some organisations use it.

For instance we receive numerous requests from businesses looking to sell us their goods or services, and using FOI legislation to save them time and money on research, at a cost to local taxpayers.

This is a good time to point out that as the Information Commissioner has said more than enough times, any information that could be released under FOI should be released pre-emptively. Were Staffs CC to do this as a default they would immediately reduce the very costs they are complaining about.

We therefore think our taxpayers equally have a right to know the time and costs involved in dealing with these enquiries and for the last two years have published this information on our website, including where those enquiries are coming from. We also publish all of our responses to ensure this information is freely available.

Do they really publish all those responses? Well, I started my stopwatch and took myself off to their site.

Could I find the published responses? No. I spent six minutes looking.

Don’t believe me? Here’s the recording I took as I did so:

You’ll notice I find a page that has the line “Freedom of Information – What have we been asked?” that looks like it should be a link but is not a link at all. A search turned up nothing either.

Attr: Flickr/scaredofbabies
Attr: Flickr/scaredofbabies

The closest I got was a page of disclosures but they relate only to requests made subject to the ‘public interest test’ and don’t actually include the substance of the request at all so are useless in helping others find information.

This further emphasises my last point. If they want to reduce the cost of FOIs asking for ‘already publicy-available information’, maybe they should go and dust the cobwebs off their web team.

Within your communication there were some specific pieces of information you requested:

You asked ‘…I notice you have included “Labour Research Department” but there are no figures from other political parties’

We only record costs in relation to actual requests. In this instance a request would have been received that could be associated with this category. We would not include any groups that could be associated with a category per se unless they made a request.

You asked ‘…the page includes the names of individuals. Did you seek permission from those individuals to publish their names in this way?’

We do not seek explicit permission from individuals, although the links to the disclosure logs are included on the request page. Many individuals make requests through sites such as ‘What do they know’ and their names would already be in the public domain. We are currently reviewing our approach in line with new ICO guidance.

Slightly worrying. They’ve released names but don’t confirm if they have sought permission from those who submitted an FOI request privately. There may be very good reasons why someone is asking for information but would have serious issues with their name being disclosed and it sounds like Staffs CC may have made a mistake here.

You asked ‘ Please disclose, for the time period covered by the aforementioned web page, the percentage of FOI requests where the response by Staffordshire Country Council was to point out that the information was already publicly available’.

In the last 12 months we have received 350 requests where the information was available elsewhere either on our own internet pages or with another organisation this equates to approximately 12 per cent.

The main reason SCC give for scare mongering about the ‘cost of FOI’ is based on a measely 12% of all requests. Even if that represented 12% of the cost, that’s only £8,196 – 0.0000008% of their budget rather than the 0.00003% Ampp3d calculated.

Additional: It just occurred to me (post-publication) that the 12% will not even cost £8,196. Given the responses will likely be short and relatively quick (i.e. either stating information is already available and/or pointing the requester to the where the information is held) they should cost much less than the average response (which requires an information gathering exercise).

Once again, it’s worth pointing out that they have failed to lower this cost on two fronts themselves; a) by pre-empting FOI requests and releasing information before it’s requested and b) by disclosing their responses to previous FOI requests (aka knowing their arse from their elbow).

If you have any queries or require any further information please do not hesitate to contact me.

In the first instance if you have any comments relating to how your request has been handled by our authority, please write to Lian Stibbs, Access Manager, Information Governance Unit, Staffordshire County Council, Wedgwood Building, Block A, Tipping Street, Stafford, ST16 2DH.

If you have any further comments relating to how your request has been handled by our authority, please contact the Information Commissioner, Wycliffe House, Water Lane, Wilmslow, Cheshire, SK9 5AF.

I’ll make just one more point that I failed to adequately make in my original letter. The subtitle of the page on the SCC website is “The cost of “Freedom of Information” to local people.” (my emphasis). No, the cost is to Staffordshire County Council, not ‘the people’ and it’s SCC that has the power to reduce those costs, as I’ve made clear.

Questioning Staffordshire on why they hate FOI

After reading on Ampp3d that Staffordshire County Council were whinging about spending 0.00003% of their budget answering FOI requests, and checking out their whinge myself, I decided to write to my County Councillor (Terry Finn) to ask why SCC are attempting to demonise users of this critically important transparency law. I made a point of reminding him that it helps us (citizens) to hold power (him) to account, given that we are the ones that have given him that power, and temporarily at that.

The letter:

Dear Terence Finn,

I am writing to you to express my disappointment in the way that Staffordshire County Council is attempting to demonise the use of a fundamentally important transparency law. Namely, the Freedom of Information Act.

As a Staffordshire resident the FOIA is crucial in ensuring I, and my fellow citizens, can hold you and council staff to account for the decisions you take in our name using the power we have lent you via the ballot box.

“The Cost of FOI Requests” on the SCC website (http://www.staffordshire.gov.uk/yourcouncil/dataprotectionandfreedomofinformation/HowMuchFOIsCost/home.aspx) states that “Often the FOI process is used by some commercial organisations to save time and research costs. We think this is a wrongful use as the information requested is already freely available publicly. The same applies to a growing number of FOI requests from the media. This can save companies and the press money by, for example, reducing research costs but only at a significant cost to the Authority which is unfair to Staffordshire tax payers.”

This statement is an inexcusable attempt to belittle the important work that the media do in holding power (that’s you) to account on our (citizens) behalf. Individual citizens mostly do not have the time, expertise or resources to carry out the kind of investigations that are necessary to effectively scrutinise local authority decision making. We rely on the media to do that for us. Attempting to accuse them of wasting our money is an attempt to tarnish their reputation at our expense, and your benefit.

Pressure groups and political groups are also singled out in the FOI Costs page of the SCC website. I am pleased to see that WhatDoTheyKnow.com, and independent website, has already been removed from that section as it should be. Still, the singling out of those groups also seeks to highlight those in a negative way given the preamble of the page. As fewer people join political parties and instead join issue-specific campaigning and pressure groups, such groups are becoming much more representative of citizens than the membership of political parties. Something you would be wise to remember as you claim a ‘mandate’ for the decisions you make using the power we have loaned to you.

Following from that point, I notice you have included “Labour Research Department” but there are no figures from other political parties. Can you clarify whether this is an omission by releasing to me the number of FOI requests submitted by each registered political party, or party-affiliated group, in the last two years please? I trust that given SCC’s dislike of FOI you’ll get that information to me in a timely manner without my having to resort using the FOIA.

I also noticed the page includes the names of individuals. Did you seek permission from those individuals to publish their names in this way?

Finally, the website states “the information requested is already freely available publicly”. Please disclose, for the time period covered by the aforementioned web page, the percentage of FOI requests where the response by Staffordshire Country Council was to point out that the information was already publicy available. Again, I trust that you will provide this in a timely manner to avoid the use of FOI. To be clear, I am requesting this information in order to verify whether the claim that many FOI requests are due to lazy researchers is actually true.

Yours sincerely,

Philip John

When secularism is not secularism: when it’s French (or European)

It’s disappointing that the European Court of Hunan Rights has upheld the French ban on full-face veils.

Some call this a ‘victory for secularism’ but it is no such thing. Secularism is about equality for all. Freedom of religion, and freedom from religion. It is not about curtailing individual liberties for some misguided notion about the ‘greater good’.

Banning the veil does nothing to address the mistreatment of women by adherents to Islam, it only serves to discriminate against those women who freely choose to wear face coverings and open them up to victimisation, isolating them from the rest of society.

Veil bans are a divisive policy concocted by politicians seeking to placate the far right for fear of losing votes to the likes of the National Front. The ECHR should be recognising this illiberal nonsense and rejecting it, not endorsing it.

Isn’t owning your own home a neoliberal ideal?

Why is the UK so obsessed with home ownership?

I’ve yet to hear anyone outline benefits to home ownership that aren’t subjective. So why this desire to make sure people can ‘get on the property ladder’?

Is it because the rental sector is risky? Then subject it to stricter regulation.

Does it provide more stability? Possibly, but that’s a double-edged sword. Buying a property is expensive, selling one is expensive, and obtaining a mortgage leaves you lumped with a huge debt that represents an enormous risk given the threat of serious illness (and myriad other life-changing events) striking at any time.

Actually, isn’t owning your own home a neoliberal ideal more suited to Tory-specific ideology than widely-accepted norm?

Thatcher gave us this aim of a “property-owning democracy” and I’m baffled that the rest of the country appears to have just adopted that mantra. Surely the “property-owning democracy” Thatcher wanted was a means to end the state-funded provision of housing, not some idealistic individual empowerment. What she, and most Tories then and now, wanted was to cut the state’s expenditure on people who were housed by the state.

I don’t think I’m being unfair when I suggest that Tories, or neoliberals specifically, take a (simplified) view that owning stuff is good. If you have assets, that’s good – it adds to your wealth, and wealth is a marker of success in a capitalist system.

But we’re not all neoliberal and so I don’t believe we should all be trumpeting this property-owning democracy as if it’s some sort of utopia. Owning your own property has benefits and disadvantages, and like any big purchase, should be subject to the individuals own desires and not some societal expectation.

Along with going to university, getting married and having kids (although I failed at that one), I’ve long rejected the expectation that you should aim to buy your own home. I see no benefit for me and my lifestyle, and I think this obsession with property ownership is damaging to society as a whole.

The pressure on people to work towards that goal forces them down a path to debt that they might not be comfortable with.

Let’s not forget that the property market has very little to do with actual property either, and much more to do with credit and balance sheets – one of the key reasons for the destructive rise in property prices over several decades.

It’s time we get over home ownership, strengthen the rights of rental tenants and ensure people have the freedom to choose under what terms they want their home.

Update 2014-07-22: Of interest might be this opinion piece calling for Right to Buy to be scrapped.

Google censors your music. Shits.

I recently ripped a bunch of my CDs to my PC again with the express intent of putting them onto Google Play so I could play them anywhere. Having listened to them this week I was shocked to discover that Google is censoring my music!

Whilst listening to The Willing Well III – Apollo II: The Telling Truth by Coheed and Cambria I noticed there were gaps. At first I thought the rip had failed, so I listened to the original MP3 and soon realised that the word “whore” was being cut out. The line goes;

Just come look at what your brother did
To that girl’s precious little whore of a body now

A delightful song, as you can see.

Then today, it happened again… this time the word it stripped out was – shock horror – “die”. Yes, really. The line is;

I hope you die right now

Again, delightful song. Again, Coheed and Cambria but this time the song was Upon Your Dead Body.

Somehow Google thinks that censoring my music is fine. That I shouldn’t listen to music about whores, death and dying.

I realised this probably isn’t some sort of automated censoring as, when  playing favourite tune Make Yourself by Incubus, there was no censoring of these lines;

If you let them fuck you, there will be no foreplay.
If I fuck me, I’ll fuck me in my own way.

Liking my taste in music yet?

So I tried to find out why Google has deemed itself arbiter of taste and decency. Predictably, there was nothing in their help section but a quick Google found plenty of people discovering the same thing (apparently their “matching” feature often matches the ‘clean’ version of songs) and even a solution.

Can I really be arsed (censor that, fuckwits!) to go through every censored song to get rid of those ridiculous gaps though?

Why is Google even doing this? Censoring the word “die” FFS! What am I gonna do, listen to the song and then go on a murderous rampage? Comments are open…

Does Amazon does this? If it weren’t for their foolish reliance on Flash I’d be using their Cloud Player instead…

Stop whining about privacy: YOU are the one GIVING it away

Following Facebook’s announcement of their “Home” app, many people seem to have read Om Malik’s melodramatic cry over spilt milk:

Om says, “But there is a bigger worry. The phone’s GPS can send constant information back to the Facebook servers, telling it your whereabouts at any time.”

Yes, it can Om, you’re right. And how does it do that, exactly? I’ll tell you shall I… Here’s a step-by-step;

  1. You download the app
  2. You agree to the app using  your GPS
  3. You open the app
  4. You allow the app to take over the home screen

OH MY GOD! I’ve suddenly realised how awful Facebook is – taking all that information from you without your consent(!)

Justifying his lying on the floor kicking and screaming, Om continues, “Facebook, a company that is known to have played loose-and-easy with consumer privacy and data since its very inception..”

Again, he’s spot on. But rather than make his point this shows how pathetic his argument is. If anything, that should have prepared him for the inevitability that Facebook will use his data. He appears to be saying,

“I can’t believe Facebook is using the huge amount of data about my life that I handed over!”

My response to Om, and anyone else whinging about their privacy within the Facebook wall, is;

If you willingly hand over any data about your life to any company whose terms, which you agreed to, state they can use that data then they will bloody well use it. If you don’t like it, don’t fucking hand over your data, you moron!

My next rant will be about why I LOVE handing over my data! 😉

Update: Instead of of that second rant, just read this which I agree with completely. In fact, I’m already allowing Google to track my every move and loving the benefits I’m getting.

Patent wars: the evil afflicting tech that will only harm consumers

Being a follower of the ‘patent war’ between mobile/tablet manufacturers recently I’m disappointed at today’s news that Samsung has been ordered to pay £1.5bn in damages to Apple. I’ve long been of the opinion that the patent system, especially in America, is fundamentally flawed and this case is another example of why.

First thing to make clear is that I’m not surprised at the verdict. On paper, Samsung have violated the patents and the reports I’ve read clearly showed, to me, Samsung had a not-so-strong case.

What gets me is that the case ever happened at all.

In June a US judge through out a case brought by Apple whilst calling the US patent system “chaos”. There are numerous examples of ridiculous patents, such as this one from Apple that patents software updates, and companies like Microsoft and Apple are openly setting up companies to act as ‘patent trolls‘ whose sole purpose is to destroy competitors through expensive litigation.

Apple is abusing the patent system in order to maintain its dominance in a blatantly anti-competitive move. Far from going to trial, the cases (all of them, including the ones brought by Samsung, Google, Motorola et al) should have been thrown out and the companies investigated under competition law.

Verdicts like that against Samsung will only serve to harm consumers in the end.

Apple created great products that consumers wanted to buy, making it the most valuable company in the world. Apple executives are now seemingly abandoning that philosophy in favour of a protectionist offensive. The rapid growth of Samsung into the smartphone market and the rise of Android, now the most popular smartphone OS, has them scared and so they’re fighting back.

One reason given for Samsung’s success is it’s wide range of phones, compared to Apple’s limited range of one (current model) very expensive phone. Apple also ignore industry standards on connectors, instead choosing to force consumers into using their own connector, a hidden cost to them. Instead, the likes of Samsung use the industry standard connections which, for example, allow me to connect my SGS3 to my HDTV for as little as £10 rather than the extortionate £35 Apple charge. Consumers are wise to this price difference and recognise they can get a similar or much better phone than an iPhone for a much more reasonable price.

Far from protecting consumers against ‘confusion’ this verdict will strengthen Apple’s position in the market and allow them to keep pushing out the same overpriced products (errm, hello, £25 for a 10in cable anyone?!) instead of responding to consumers who have quite clearly demonstrated they want the choice on offer from Samsung.