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« Why no resignation? | Main | Critiques and responses »

Frankely, a bit of a stretch

Maurice Frankel, the director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information has made his own contribution to the Stirling University FOI question, claiming in remarkable fashion that an obscure exemption for FOI requests submitted to Scottish bodies may apply to Stirling.

The researchers have argued that if they are forced to hand over the information (presumably even in anonymised form from which subjects could not be identified), funders will be reluctant to back them, other academics will not share data with them and teenagers will refuse to be interviewed in future.

If this is true, then a specific exemption in the Scottish FOI Act may apply. This allows information collected during a continuing programme of research to be withheld if future reports are planned and disclosure would substantially prejudice them. The exemption is subject to a public-interest test. Other exemptions, such as breach of confidence, may also apply. This means the "catastrophe" the researchers warn about may not be imminent at all.

As far as I can tell, he is referring to S27(1) of the Scottish FOI Act (see here for a guidance note). As far as I can tell Frankel is making a heroic interpretation of the legislation. The guidance note says:

The...exemption permits information relating to research programmes to be withheld in certain circumstances. Information obtained or derived from a programme of research is exempt if the research itself is intended for publication and premature disclosure would jeopardise the programme, any individual participant or any of the public authorities involved in the research.

So they can withhold the information until it is published. And just in case Stirling were thinking of being clever, there's also this:

Before deciding to rely on this exemption, an authority must satisfy itself that, at the time the request was made, the information was scheduled to be published within 12 weeks. The exemption contained in section 27(1) cannot apply if the authority only decides to publish the information after an individual has requested it.


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Reader Comments (13)

Hopefully Mr Frankel will turn up here to explain what the Campaign for Freedom of Information is all about - I have obviously misunderstood.

Sep 4, 2011 at 8:30 AM | Unregistered Commenternot banned yet

Most public bodies, when they collect information, surely explain that it may be subject to FOI requests. I've seen this. Those doing research should make this clear when they conduct interviews and surveys. They have no right to interview a participant on the basis that FOI requests to see the anonymised answers will be refused.

Sep 4, 2011 at 8:35 AM | Unregistered CommenterJulian

Yeah right its like my homies and me are really really worried about privacy innit? We've all stopped using facebook and twitter (not) in case some nasty nasty man finds out whether we've had a quick drag behind the bike sheds.

And if some git from the f....g University with a clipbaord stops me outside The Thistle Centre asking me personal questions again I swear I'll punch his f...g lights out.

Up the Binos! Down the Bairns!

Sep 4, 2011 at 8:49 AM | Unregistered CommenterA Teenager from Stirling

Oddly, last night I was watching the Yes Minister episode where Sir Arnold Robinson takes the presidency of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, and toasts the notion of freedom of information, with the caveat "...whenever it's in the national interest."

Life imitates art..

Sep 4, 2011 at 9:47 AM | Unregistered CommenterRick Bradford

The Freedom of Information Act is obviously deeply flawed. I am sure that when the last government introduced it they envisaged that, like the Human Rights Act, it would become a tool for the promotion of left wing causes as well as providing employment for lawyers.

The FOI Act should be revised so that only suitably qualified people (i.e. those with the correct views) can request information. On the other hand the Human Rights Act does not need any changes because it is perfect and anybody who thinks otherwise is very nasty indeed. We know that because the Guardian tells us so.

Sep 4, 2011 at 9:48 AM | Unregistered CommenterRoy

yes well but if I was BP and had funded some research on some arcane aspect of -say - oil migration - which might be useful at some future date, would I not be a bit pissed if Shell wandered in with a FOI and got the info for free, and negated my potential commercial advantage? In short, are research funders funding for public interest, or private interest? ^And if its for private interest, surely there are limits to FOI demands? Is that applicable in this case?

Sep 4, 2011 at 10:19 AM | Unregistered Commenterbill

"Hopefully Mr Frankel will turn up here to explain what the Campaign for Freedom of Information is all about - I have obviously misunderstood."

Why not look at ?

Maurice Frankel is a tireless advocate for FOI, and an excellent fellow in my experience. Much to his credit he seeks to be even-handed, even when it might seem counter-productive. (Would that many commentators on climate matters were equally even-handed ...).

Sep 4, 2011 at 10:52 AM | Unregistered CommenterCassio

Can I put my tinfoil hat on, In this excellent post by Mr Delinpole he connects Russian economics to the loony economics of green jobs but how would the Russian PR departement handle FOI requests it did not wish to see the light of day? Thank god theres no Gulags?

Although we are all guilty until proven inoccent now.

Sep 4, 2011 at 12:03 PM | Unregistered CommenterShevva

The slogan of the AGW movement:

"If people don't know what you're doing, they don't know what you're doing wrong."

Sep 4, 2011 at 1:49 PM | Unregistered CommenterRick Bradford

Looks to me that section 27(2) looks like the one that is more likely to apply in most situations and it doesn't have the 12 week limit of section 27(1).

Sep 4, 2011 at 3:09 PM | Unregistered CommenterSteve McIntyre

1. FOI request 14 September 2009 (made by Clifford Chance LLP with no mention that the true applicant was Philip Morris), asked for information from a survey entitled "Cancer Research UK CTCR survey of adolescents' reactions to tobacco marketing".

It requested:
a.all primary data relating to the Survey and the analysis in the Report based on the Survey;
b.all questionnaires used in carrying out the Survey;
c.all interviewers' handbooks and/or instructions used in carrying out the Survey;
d.all data files, including weight variables, connected with the Survey; and
e.all record descriptions connected with the Survey.

Together with
i.sampling in the context of the Survey; collection in the context of the Survey;
iii.the handling of non-response in the context of the Survey; and weighting and analysis in the context of the Survey.

The Commisioner denied the request because the true applicant was not named. But Stirling University had already provided a, c, e, and most of b, together with iii.

2. FOI request 27 August 2010, was a restatement of the first, but identifying Philip Morris as the applicant. Stirling claims that this request will cause funders, academics, and teenagers to withdraw from future research, were they forced to hand over the remaining information.

As the data are anonymised, I am beginning to suspect, much against my inclination, that Stirling are unhappy for others to view their methods. Somewhat supported by ...

3. FOI request 24 August 2010, asked for infomation regarding a study "Piloting the Use of Plain Packs in a Real Life Environment: Experiences of Young Adult Smokers". This is the request to which the Commisioner's press statement of 1 September 2011 "Not Vexatious", relates.

No teenagers were interviewed during this study. It was a 4 week pilot study of 140 smokers aged 18–35 years. However, only 48 correctly completed and returned all the bi-weekly questionnaires. A subsample of 18 participated in a post-study interview. Now, I know statisticians are whizzes but, really?

Results Trends in the data show that in comparison with branded packaging, plain packaging increased negative perceptions and feelings about the pack and about smoking. Plain packaging also increased avoidant behaviour (hiding the pack, covering the pack), certain smoking cessation behaviours, such as smoking less around others and forgoing cigarettes, and thinking about quitting. Almost half (n=8) of those in the post-study interview, predominantly women (n=6), reported that the use of plain packs had either increased avoidant behaviour or reduced consumption.

Conclusions This pilot naturalistic study suggests that plain packaging could potentially help reduce tobacco consumption among some young adult smokers, and women in particular. Employing an innovative research methodology, the findings of this study are consistent with, and indeed support, past plain packaging research.

Eureka! Let's make all the packs plain! Then every smoker will ... er, buy really neat cigarette cases?

The paper is pay-to-view, so I was unable to determine the "innovative research methodology" that spins such straw into gold.

Still: The Commissioner has not ordered the University to release the information.
So, Stirling remains free to challenge the request on the grounds that an exemption applies, or that it is too costly to respond. I wonder if embaressment is a grounds for exemption?

Sep 4, 2011 at 3:10 PM | Unregistered CommenterFred Streeter

I am embarrassed to have written embaressment - service revolver and whisky, left hand drawer.

Sep 4, 2011 at 3:27 PM | Unregistered CommenterFred Streeter

I'd still like to know the wording and the responses to the mysterious remaining seven of the nine question Doran and Zimmerman 2009 survey of 10,257 Earth scientists, rather than those of the rather banal two questions reported on..

Sep 4, 2011 at 8:19 PM | Unregistered CommenterPharos

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