Naming Names

July 26, 2008 - Leave a Response

A New Zealand court has recently forced a name change on a girl named Talula Does The Hula From Hawaii. Several other strange names are mentioned that were refused by the Registrar, including Fish and Chips, Yeah Detroit, Keenan Got Lucy and Sex Fruit.

Apparently New Zealand prevents names “that would cause offense to a reasonable person”,  and imposes a limit of 100 characters.

Curious as to the position in the UK I sent off a request to the General Register Office, and also to the Registrar General in Scotland (as they have an entirely different legal system).

The Scottish registrar came back exceptionally quickly informing me that there is no legislation in Scotland restricting the name that can be given to a child. However, he then went on to say that Scottish parents “have the freedom to name their children as they wish, provided it is not objectionable.”

To me this contradicts his previous statement as such a restriction must be based on some law, even if it’s a generic one related to causing offence more generally, rather than specific to naming. So I’ve gone back to ask for more details on who makes this decision, and how.

I was a little surprised to be told that names don’t have to be in the Latin script (I’d explicitly asked about any restrictions on characters), so I’ve given the example of a child being named something offensive in Chinese. Normally public order offences are based on a reasonableness test (the classic “Man on the Clapham omnibus”), so is it allowable if the average person wouldn’t know that the name was offensive?

More to come as the responses arrive…

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This is getting ridiculous

July 25, 2008 - Leave a Response

Rother replied remarkably quickly to my two latest requests, with exactly the same response as before: effectively rejecting them out of hand.

In doing some more research into the various reasons that they’ve given I came across the “Code of Practice on the discharge of public authorities’ functions under Part I of the Freedom of Information Act 2000“.

In the section on Complaints Procedures, I discovered:

Authorities should set their own target times for dealing with complaints; these should be reasonable, and subject to regular review. Each public authority should publish its target times for determining complaints and information as to how successful it is with meeting those targets.

I went looking for these on Rother’s website, to no avail. In fact they don’t even seem to have a “Freedom of Information” section at all. They have an A-Z of council services that is actually a shared directory with the other councils in the area. Under the “Freedom of Information” entry there, each of the other three councils have links to the relevant section of the websites, but Rother only have contact details for their FoI officer.

One of the things that Rother seems to be complaining about with WhatDoTheyKnow requests is that the information is automatically published to the web. The information on complaints handling is meant to be published publicly, so I’ve requested it. I’m hoping that I won’t just get exactly the same response again, but with Rother very little would surprise me at this point.

Rother Bother

July 24, 2008 - Leave a Response

It turns out that the strange reply I received from Rother wasn’t unique to me: numerous other people who had requested information from them received similar responses. It seems that Rother’s idiosyncratic responses about WhatDoTheyKnow.com being amateurish and demanding postal addresses from requestors has drawn lots of attention to them, helped, no doubt, by several posts about it on Martin Rosenbaum’s excellent Open Secrets blog on the BBC.

Intrigued by all this I explored Rother’s official site in a little more depth. The response I received was signed “Interim Solicitor” which might give the impression of someone who was perhaps merely providing holiday cover and working quickly through requests without proper FoI training. But the picture from the Council is slightly different. David Edwards, who is currently the Interim Solicitor, has been for numerous years the Council’s Legal Services Manager, and seems to have been involved in FoI practically since inception. In 2004 he made presentations to the Council’s monthly meeting on both Data Protection and Freedom of Information, and there was a proposal that Council policy should be that any request that is to be rejected first needs to be cleared by him.

In short, this is not a rookie out of his depth, and the refusals to provide information must be taken more seriously in light of that. As well as making a formal complaint about the response I received, I’ve made a couple of additional requests for new information arising out of my research:

I was going to request copies of the FoI and DP presentations to the Council, but I note that several other users of WhatDoTheyKnow have requested lots of other internal FoI docs, so I left that one until I see what comes back from those, so as not to double up, and only requested the DP one.

I also enquired as to whether the proposed policy of clearing all rejections through the Legal Services Manager was indeed implemented, and details of how many rejections there have been per year. I’m very curious as to whether these refusals are only being targetted at the “amateurish” WhatDoTheyKnow, or are part of a wider pattern of refusing to comply with FoI on what seem to be very spurious grounds.

Common Purpose redux

July 23, 2008 - Leave a Response

Today I got a response to my previously mentioned follow-up to Rother’s curiously worded “no payments in this respect” .

Astonishingly, rather than confirming that it was just a poor choice of words and there had been no payments in any other respect either, they have refused to answer my enquiry. This certainly doesn’t do much for the perception that the original wording was indeed very carefully chosen to mislead.

The grounds are a little confusing: they appear to still be attempting to claim that an email address is not a valid “address for correspondence” under the Act despite having been shown numerous times that it is. But, more puzzlingly, they also appear to be classing my request as “repeated or vexatious”. I explicitly noted that it was a follow-up to a previous enquiry from someone-else, which doesn’t seem repeated to me, and I’m rather concerned that seeking clarification on hugely ambiguous wording is classed as vexatious.

Even more bizarrely, as part of the response they make a strange claim about how a request from someone who doesn’t live in Rother and isn’t a professional journalist or researcher is less likely to have any serious purpose or value! So much for FoI being applicant blind…

TVL @ BBC

July 22, 2008 - Leave a Response

Every now and again I come across someone making the claim that TV Licensing, the often quite nasty people who collect license fees by rather dubious means, are a distinct organisation from the BBC, who merely get the benefit of the cash but aren’t responsible for collecting it.

Although this is complete nonsense it doesn’t help that the BBC themselves try to muddy the waters somewhat by proclaiming at any available opportunity that TVL doesn’t even really exist as a proper entity, but is a conglomeration of private companies to whom the BBC contract out all that nasty business.

These days it seems that even the people who beat on your door and try to weasel their way into your house to prove that you’re lying about not having a TV aren’t even employed by the contracted companies, but are self-employed, and no doubt paid largely on “results”.

At core, however, no matter how many levels of indirection there are between the people banging on your door and the BBC themselves, the BBC are directly responsible for the whole process, and I was curious as to how many people the BBC directly employ to manage all the contractors.

It turns out that the answer is 27.6 full-time-equivalent staff in the TV Licensing Management Team. At some stage, if no-one else beats me to it, I’ll follow up for a categorisation of the roles and payscales.

Job Advertising Spends

July 21, 2008 - Leave a Response

Belfast City Council are a fairly large organisation. They employ a lot of people (I can’t find exact numbers, maybe I should enquire!), and always seem to be advertising for more!

So I requested a breakdown for each of the the last three years of the number of job ads placed, and how much this cost. I am all too aware from experience that advertising for jobs is expensive, but I was a little stunned for the total figure to be over £700,000 for three years.

I was also slightly surprised that very little of this was online. £1,375 in 2006/7 and nothing at all last year. I don’t know if this meant they experimented with it for a while and it didn’t work, or if they just don’t think online jobsites are effective, but you’ve got to think that there’s a way of saving a substantial portion of that quarter-of-a-million quid each year.

Uncovering More of the Mysteries of Common Purpose

July 17, 2008 - Leave a Response

As well as digging deeper into Rother’s response regarding Common Purpose, I also had to follow up on Belfast City Council’s. Unlike Rother, they revealed almost £100,000 of expenditure to Common Purpose and provided three large PDFs of invoices.

However, they redacted these invoices by blanking out the names of the Council staff and Councillors who attended training, on the grounds that this would be a breach of Data Protection. I always find such an approach to be deeply suspicious. There have been several rulings by the Information Commissioner that names of government officials are not personal data under the Data Protection Act where they are in relation to them carrying out their duties, and I have successfully appealed such redactions before.

So I requested that Belfast City Council release the full unredacted versions.

I was more than a little surprised when they did so within 24 hours!

Well, not entirely. They agreed to un-redact the personal names of Councillors, and released new copies of the invoices accordingly. They also provided new copies of the invoices relating to Council Staff, this time revealing the officer’s job title – but still blacking out the name. They are going to consider separately whether those should be released.

I’m fairly confident that they will be – particularly as it is already public knowledge which individuals held particular posts at a given time – but it’s nice to see such a quick turnaround on the Councillors’ names.

Update: I see that they’ve also responded to the initial requestor with revised PDFs too. Nice!

The Shadowy World of Common Purpose?

July 15, 2008 - Leave a Response

One of the nice features of WhatDoTheyKnow.com is the the ability to track all requests made to an authority you’re interested in. You can either get an RSS feed, or daily updates by email.

I set it up to track Belfast City Council, and in the process discovered the whole new world of conspiracy theories that is wrapped up in Common Purpose. Is this merely an educational charity, or is it really, as per David Icke, a sinister organisation (presumably led by giant lizards) with the aim of controlling the UK? Enquiring minds want to know.

So, as enquiring minds do these days, someone sent a series of FoI request to pretty much every government authority they could find asking for copies of all payments made to Common Purpose since 2000.

In further exploring the responses to these (which seem to fall into two camps: “We’ve never sent anyone on their courses or paid them any money” and “Here are the four hundred invoices for the huge numbers of training courses we’ve participated in”), I stumbled across a strange exchange with Rother District Council.

The first part that caught my eye was that they at first tried to avoid answering the request on grounds that the act requires a postal address. The requestor quite rightly pointed out that an email address has long since been established as a valid “address for correspondence” under the Act, and triggered quite a strange rant from the Council’s Legal Services Manager about how TheyWorkForYou.com is an “amateurish website” and how he fails to see what practical purpose it serves.

Curiosity piqued, I paid more attention to the eventual response where it was stated: “I confirm that the Council has not sent any employees or Members on any such course and therefore no payments have been made in this respect.”

Now, when a lawyer who has already shown a tendency towards pedanticness phrases something in that manner I get suspicious.

Does “no payments have been made in this respect” mean that payments have been made in other respects?

So, I’ve asked them to clarify this.

Councillors and Mobile Phones

July 12, 2008 - Leave a Response

In 2002 the Local Government Auditor took a case against Newry and Mourne District Council in relation to the practice of reimbursing Councillors for the costs of their mobile phones, claiming that there was no authority for councils to do so. This, understandablly, sent most other local councils into somewhat of a tizzy. Belfast City Council, for example, changed their policy to only reimburse calls made directly to the switchboard at City Hall.

It took until late 2005 for the case to come to trial, and the Auditor’s view won out. I was curious as to what correspondence there was between the Auditor and other councils in light of this, so requested copies of all relevant correspondence from Belfast City Council.

Unfortunately I only received a single letter from the Chief Local Government Auditor setting out the position in light of the ruling. It looks like it was sent to all councils, but it doesn’t really tell me anything I didn’t already know.

I’m not sure whether there’s more information that I didn’t properly request or this really is the extent of it. I can’t decide if that means I need to be more precise or less precise in future requests! That’s one of the problems with FoI. Although authorities are meant to provide you assistance on finding the information you’re looking for, the more precise you are, the more they’re likely to assume you know what you want and provide only what you specify. However, the more vague you are, the more wiggle room there is if they want to skip over something!

First Response … almost!

July 11, 2008 - Leave a Response

Over the past few weeks I’ve been making some FoI requests through WhatDoTheyKnow.com. Under the Act, authorities have 20 working days to respond. In my previous experience some always take at least that long, others tend to reply to all but the most complex requests in a couple of days.

I’ve been a little disappointed that I’ve had nothing beyond acknowledments so far, so yesterday evening I was excited to receive my first proper response.

I recently discovered the Northern Ireland Audit Office report into fraud in Ordnance Survey Northern Ireland. In it it was noted that Agency was defrauded of over £70,000 between 1998 and 2003, and that in June 2006 the Court ordered the fraudster to repay £30,000 within 12 months, on penalty of jail. Civil action was then to recover the £40,000+ balance.

I couldn’t find any information anywhere on whether the court ordered payment was ever made, or how the civil action had proceeded. So I enquired about both.

Unfortunately, however, my reply had no information yet, but was merely to inform me that as OSNI was no longer part of the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL), but in April became part of the new Land & Property Services Agency under the Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP)! They’ve transferred the request over to there for me, but as the relevant person is on holiday for another few weeks, I’m going to have to wait a while longer for my first substantive response!