Idle Hands

On August 27th, the minister for International Trade, Greg Hands MP, tweeted an important update about foreign investment in the UK:

One US company emails “The minister was spot-on with his comments on Brexit & we’ve decided to stay in the UK based on guidance provided.”

It’s clearly a good thing if Brexit doesn’t result in the economic calamity that some have predicted, but by itself, Mr Hands’ tweet doesn’t advance the debate. To judge whether this is good news, we need to know how big a company this is, how likely they were to leave, and what investment and jobs they might bring to the apocalyptic wasteland that is the UK’s future. In short, we need to know who they are. If the Government wants to use decisions made by  private companies for the purposes of propaganda, we need to be able to scrutinise who they’re talking about.

I asked Mr Hands who the company was on Twitter but he ignored me, so I made an FOI request to his Department for the name of the company and all of the information contained in the email. A few weeks later came their reply, a terse response that barely explained the nature of the exemption they were using (Section 43, which prevents disclosures that cause commercial prejudice). Of the public interest, they had this to say:

in this case it is also important that Government protects commercially sensitive information to allow this particular business to continue to operate in anonymity to limit the exposure of its business strategy; the disclosure of which may be advantageous to competitors operating in the same sector

I decided to ask for an internal review. The department could maintain their position by disclosing the email but removing the name, and to be honest, I was still working on the assumption that Hands might have made the whole thing up. The Department for International Trade has a difficult relationship with the truth – only this week, the Secretary of State Liam Fox appeared on television to deny sending a tweet despite the fact that the self-same tweet was being displayed on a massive screen behind him, while in a previous job, Hands tweeted about signing off an FOI request about the number of FOI requests his department had received, despite the fact that the department published the numbers.

My review request covered three areas – I had requested all of the information in the email so the metadata for the email could still be disclosed, the public interest had not been assessed properly (the Brexit debate being possibly the most important issue facing the UK in my lifetime), and finally, I said that the Department should at least contact the company to ask their consent.

The Department’s reply was in turn bland – Hands’ meeting with the company was in private, and they had made no public announcement – and meaningless. They dealt with the metadata issue with this sentence, which I still do not understand: “With reference to your request for metadata, this is nullified by the fact that we have not released any information to you for which we would be required to provide those details.

And so off to the Commissioner’s Office I went. After a few months, the ICO achieved a result. It turned out that the Department had never consulted the company in question, despite the fact that I specifically mentioned this in my internal review request. The ICO told them that they ought to have done this, so they did. Despite their claim in their original reply that the organisation needed anonymity to limit the exposure of their business strategy, the company clearly didn’t feel the same way, so I can tell you that the company is the medical imaging firm PACS Health, and the email came from their Chief Operating Officer (Mr Hands quoted it entirely accurately).

The Department’s approach does not bode well, especially given the turbulent times the UK faces – both outside and within. Secrecy is best, they seem to think. Openness and scrutiny is to be avoided, and has no benefit. Despite having two opportunities to do it (and being prompted by me), those handling my request didn’t think it was worth contacting the company to see what they think. The assumption is that the best course of action is to keep things behind closed doors. Of course, this is a somewhat charitable characterisation of their approach, because it’s entirely possible that the Department didn’t want to contact the company in case they said yes. I mean no disrespect to the fine folk of PACS Health, but they’re not exactly Nissan. How many small companies will have to adopt the same approach to make up for the economic opportunities the UK is about to lose?

The ICO’s attitude wasn’t encouraging either. Admittedly, it was only by complaining to them that I got the information, but the Senior Case Officer wrote to me saying that because of this, they proposed “to informally and proportionately close this matter” without issuing a decision notice. I can see the merit in this sometimes but here, the ICO has an opportunity to send out a message to all public authorities – when claiming commercial prejudice to third parties and private companies, it’s vital to consult them. Doing so in my case would have avoided an internal review and a complaint to the ICO, and they had to do it in the end anyway. By trying to dodge a decision notice, the chance to send this message is lost.

The problem is that unless I withdraw my complaint, the ICO’s main option to refuse to make a decision is to say that my complaint is frivolous or vexatious, and they clearly didn’t think it was. They don’t even have the guts to be transparent about this and say ‘please withdraw your complaint so we can close the case and hit our targets‘ – the Commissioner loftily proposes to close the matter, and I am invited to give the case officer a ring if I want to discuss it.

I asked if they were refusing to issue a decision notice, underlining the point that my case is a good example of the importance of consultation, and I received a somewhat testy reply, telling me that it was clearly not proportionate for the ICO to do so given that I was going to receive the information, and the Department had been told to consult in future. The problem with this argument is that this will only benefit the Department itself, whereas a Decision Notice will be seen by other public authorities and (more importantly) FOI applicants. And separately, there is also some benefit to the Department’s shoddy approach being ventilated. They might be less likely to do it again if it’s a known fact that they did it here.

As he realised that I would object to having the case closed informally, the Case Officer confirmed that a decision notice would nevertheless be issued, although he could not resist a slightly petulant parting shot: “Please note that the process of issuing such a notice can be a lengthy one (i.e. months not weeks)“. I’m not sure why I should be chastened by a reminder of the ICO’s ponderous decision-making processes – indeed, if they were better at making and signing off decisions instead of constantly looking for excuses to close cases, it probably wouldn’t take months anyway.

On both sides, transparency isn’t valued. The Department for International Trade want to keep everything way from scrutiny; the ICO just wants to close cases without going through the admin of writing a decision notice, despite the benefit that a wider dissemination of the case might have. Whatever you think about the future, we need an FOI system that is better hands than this.

Catch the Pidgeon

Even before the fundraising sector met its Data Protection nemesis in December, with two charities cruelly hung out on the rack, forbidden ever to raise funds again (CORRECTION: given two of the smallest fines in Data Protection history and not forbidden from doing anything), various blogs, and tweets showed that anguished tin-rattlers were confused about what they were accused of.

A classic of the genre was published just over a week ago by Third Sector, penned by Stephen Pidgeon, a “consultant and teacher” (one assumes modesty prevented the publication from mentioning that until recently he chaired the Institute of Fundraising’s Standards Committee, responsible for the until-recently legally incorrect Code of Fundraising Practice). Pidgeon made a series of assertions in his article, and the most important of them is wrong.

Pidgeon describes profiling as a serendipitous activity – a fundraiser innocently planning some door-drops (not a hint of pestering spam in this charming scenario, nor any resort to a data-mining outfit like Prospecting for Gold) happens to notice that a donor has sold a business, and so decides to add his details to an existing campaign. The scheme is ruined by the ICO who says: “That’s not allowed – it’s against the Data Protection Act without express permission“. As Pidgeon points out, the DPA is much vaguer than that. If the Commissioner had indeed said this, it would be nonsense. The problem is, they didn’t.

Both charity notices set out the ICO’s position on charity profiling – it cannot be secret. The same is true for data sharing and appending new data to records that the subject didn’t provide. Neither notice finds profiling without consent to be a breach. Admittedly, of the Data Protection only offers one other option to justify profiling in these circumstances (legitimate interests), but either Pidgeon doesn’t know what the notice says, or he is deliberately misleading his audience. The word ‘permission’ does not appear in either notice, and the word ‘consent’ isn’t mentioned either.

Pidgeon also asserts that wealth profiling is not confined to charities:

This issue is not confined to charities. Yet, in all the 100-plus ICO adjudications in 2016, I could not find a single commercial firm censured for wealth screening.

To be pedantic, they’re not unenforceable ‘adjudications’, they’re formal legal notices, and if you add up all of the DP and PECR monetary penalty and enforcement notices in 2016, you don’t get to 100. He might be including the undertakings, which could be compared to the blancmange adjudications that charities have grown used to, but they’re irrelevant in a conversation about enforcement. The more important point is that like others, including the fundraising apologist academic Ian McQuillin and the researcher Matt Ide, Pidgeon claims that everyone does wealth screening but only the charities are getting punished for it. The Daily Mail hasn’t exposed Marks and Spencers or Greggs for wealth screening – possibly because they’re good at keeping it secret, but a more likely explanation is that they don’t do it. Until someone in the charity sector shows evidence of another organisation doing secret profiling, it’s just a distraction from the fact that – as Pidgeon claims – most of the charity sector have been doing it unlawfully for years.

Many in the sector also seem persuaded that the ICO action is a weird anti-charity vendetta. MacQuillin’s contributions to the Critical Fundraising Blog pondered the mystifying question of why the data protection regulator has taken action when household name organisations have been exposed for breaching data protection. The ICO takes action for three reasons – an organisation reports itself for something, ICO gets lots of complaints about something, or something makes a big splash in the press. There were thousands of complaints about charity fundraising, but all went to the toothless Fundraising Standards Board, who hardly ever passed them on to ICO. So it was the Daily Mail’s headlines that did the trick – the heartbreaking story of Olive Cooke but more importantly for the ICO’s purposes, the flamboyantly unlawful way in which charities treated Samuel Rae, trading his data relentlessly with anyone who wanted it.

In pursuing his false claim about consent, Pidgeon derisively summarised what charities might have to say to prospective donors: “We want to find out how rich you are; tick here to agree”! As a first draft, this has some merit, but a charity involved in wealth screening should also add ‘We want to know whether you are worth more alive or dead‘. The consent claim is a red herring, but perhaps unwittingly, Pidgeon has hit on the real problem for fundraisers: daylight. The foundation of Data Protection is fairness, and the only way to achieve it, regardless of whether consent is part of the mix, is to tell the subject the purposes for which their data will be used. Stretching the law as far as they can, the ICO has invented the concept of ‘reasonable expectations’. Reasonable expectations doesn’t appear in the Data Protection Act, but the ICO’s idea is that if you are only doing something that the person would expect, you don’t have to spell it out. One might take issue with this because it’s not in the Act, but it’s a sensible idea. The ICO’s emphasis has always been on being transparent over unexpected or objectionable processing.

Tesco’s Clubcard scheme is a useful example. Clubcard is a loyalty scheme, clearly based on profiling. The user knows that when they swipe their card, their purchases are analysed so that tailored offers and vouchers can be provided. Needless to say, Tesco also use the data for their sales and marketing strategy. If you look at the T&Cs for the Clubcard scheme, you will not find references to data sharing with third parties for wealth screening. They don’t need to – they can analyse your purchases instead. The user knows that profiling is inherent to the scheme, and they are not required to participate when shopping at Tesco. I have a Clubcard because I understand the system and I don’t believe that Tesco flogs my data. The profiling is the basis on which the whole thing operates. I have a choice about whether to shop at Tesco, and separately, whether to have a Clubcard when I do.

On the other hand, the RSPCA profiled seven million donors after they donated; presumably the lion’s share of all people who donated to the charity. The RSPCA did not tell people that this was the purpose for which their data will be used, and nobody outside the charity sector was aware of what was happening. Unlike Clubcard, donors could not participate without being screened and analysed by the charity. I have used the wealth-screening example on many of my training courses. The reaction is always surprise, and often revulsion.  Nobody ever leaps to the charity’s defence because secret profiling is a dodgy way to do business.

Pidgeon’s squeamishness about describing the process – the daft example of the story in the newspaper, his emphasis on data being gathered from the public domain – suggests that fundraisers are more ambivalent about their methods than they might like to admit. The existence of five facts in five separate publicly accessible places is different to the combination of those facts in one place, gathered with the intention of tailored marketing. A profile is greater than the sum of its parts, and people should be told that it exists. Pidgeon isn’t alone in his approach – Chris Carnie, the founder of ‘prospect research’ company Factary erroneously characterised myself and others as saying that using public domain data is “an intrusion into an individual’s privacy. That searching for a named individual in Companies House fundamentally affects the rights of that person“. All I said was that such research should be transparent, but this isn’t news that Carnie and his colleagues find palatable. Ide’s company goes as far as to assess the ‘ethical credentials‘ of a donor, which sounds a world away from noticing a story in a paper.

The Daily Mail is a revolting newspaper – the worst combination of small-minded, petty conservatism and curtain-twitching prurience. It is a matter of ongoing annoyance to me that the Mail is one of the very few national news outlets that covers Data Protection issues with any enthusiasm. I really wish the Guardian or the Times had exposed the ghastly exploitation of vulnerable people like Samuel Rae, or their hunger for information about possible donors. I wish Dispatches’ fine work on the shameful state of some fundraising call centres had got more attention. Nevertheless, none of this is the Mail’s fault, and fundraisers’ relentless blame-shifting needs to be called out for the cant that it is. Everyone knows whose fault this is.

The charity and fundraising sector isn’t in a mess over data protection because of the Daily Mail, and it isn’t there because of the Information Commissioner. This problem is the fault of some fundraisers and their agents not obeying the law, and trustees who didn’t ask them enough questions. MacQuillin claims that almost everything that has happened to the fundraising sector over the past two years is because of ‘fake news‘; Olive Cooke’s death wasn’t, her family says, the result of the spam tsunami that charities subjected her to. For one thing, this claim disgracefully ignores Samuel Rae, whose story would have caused the same interest even if it wasn’t the sequel to Olive Cooke. Moreover, it is itself fake news. If some of Pidgeon and MacQuillin’s compadres had done their job with a greater interest in the law, they wouldn’t be here now. This is the second or third time I have written this blog. With 11 more possible fines, and fundraisers still in denial about what they have done, I’ll probably have to write it again before long.

The Red Menace

Just before New Year, the pro-Brexit, anti-single market pressure group Change Britain published a report about the possible savings that could accrue to the UK if we cut all ties with the EU. Keen observers of current politics will be astonished to learn that the amount is in the multiple billions. One of the top savings is from repealing the Data Protection Act 1998, which Change Britain claims costs the economy a whopping £1,058,830,000, while (if I am reading the table right), giving a benefit of precisely nothing. It’s a prime example of ‘harmful EU red tape‘ that Change Britain is very much against.

Curiously, the report doesn’t include any mention the General Data Protection Regulation, despite the fact that the Government announced several months before its publication that GDPR will apply in the UK, reflecting the reality that it will come into force before we leave. The report does not hint at any cost in repealing the DPA and replacing it with something else, or the wasted effort currently being expended by organisations large and small in preparing for GDPR, all of which they want to cancel out. The economic benefit of being able to share data across EU borders isn’t priced in at all, even if we accept the £1 billion cost at face value. Inevitably, Change Britain’s report has the mindset of an Oscar Wilde cynic, knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing. Although the DPA is clunky and badly enforced, the benefits of saying that personal data should be obtained fairly, used transparently, kept in good order and processed securely are enormous.

I emailed Change Britain just before New Year asking the questions outlined below. I would like to express my gratitude to the Change Britain staff member who took the time to give me two courteous replies when many people were probably on holiday or hung-over.

Can you confirm that Change Britain believes that the GDPR should not be implemented, as well as advocating the repeal of the Data Protection Act? Can I ask what analysis you have done into the effects of repealing DP, in terms of its effects on the security and quality of personal data, and the rights of UK citizens to know how their data is used, and to get access to it on request?
Can you also provide me with any proposals Change Britain have for replacing the Data Protection Act / GDPR, or is the idea to remove any controls or protections on the way personal data is used in the UK post-Brexit?
Finally, can you give me any analysis on the effect of repealing the DPA / not implementing GDPR on the ability of UK companies to exchange personal data with EU countries, and how this would affect the UK’s adequacy for Data Protection purposes? As I am sure you already know, not having adequate data protection provisions would make it virtually impossible for EU and UK companies to do business with each other, because no personal data could be shared outside the EU.

In their reply, Change Britain didn’t explain why they hadn’t mentioned GDPR in the first place, but noted that the Coalition Government said in 2013 that the GDPR could ‘impose unnecessary additional costs on current businesses‘, a comment made on a version of the GDPR which is quite different to the one we’re actually getting. The emphasis was on ensuring that “expensive red tape is cut so that the burden on business is reduced“.

They didn’t really answer the questions, but the thrust of their preferred approach seemed to come here: “We believe that it is possible to secure a new relationship that allows ongoing data sharing between the UK and the EU and gives UK policy makers an opportunity to deal with the issues they have identified with EU laws and – in so doing – reduce the burden of red tape on British businesses“. They didn’t mention the fact that the current government has announced that the GDPR will apply or what the implications of that might be for their proposal. Crucially, while they clearly wanted to “reduce the burdens”, they did not explain to me what these burdens were.

It seemed to me that Change Britain were describing the Mother of Worst Case Scenarios: repeal of the DPA with a UK only replacement instead of adopting the GDPR, some kind of negotiated deal over EU data sharing with all the fragility that entails in the world of Max Schrems, a situation which could well mean UK businesses with EU customers separately adopting GDPR for their customers. Of course, there are many who think that an adequacy finding for the UK post-Brexit is going to hard to achieve, and so some kind of UK Privacy Shield arrangement (AKA Daragh O Brien‘s Privacy Brolly) is the likely outcome. But I’m not aware of anyone in the DP world who thinks this is a good idea – it’s just what we might end up with.

I emailed them again. I asked whether they were proposing what I thought they were proposing (making it sound as complicated and horrendous as I did just now). I wondered whether they had a list of the specific burdens that they objected to. I also asked if they had an analysis of the costs of reversing the current position on GDPR, given all the time and money that is currently going into preparing for it precisely because the government has said that we should. Finally, I asked whether a Privacy Shield arrangement was should be the aim, given the fiery death of Safe Harbor and the fact that the prognosis for Privacy Shield is somewhat toasty (to paraphrase).

They were kind enough to reply again, but with a striking lack of detail. “Brexit is an opportunity to repeal laws that don’t work and introduce better versions” they told me. They did not dispute my interpretation of what they want, which is astonishing. They are “aware of the legitimate issues that you have raised, however we also believe that the concerns raised about the impact of the EU’s data protection regime on small businesses should also be given equal weight when the Government considers the opportunities that come from Brexit”. They didn’t explain how reversing current government policy and forcing UK businesses to operate at least two different DP systems, no matter how large or small they might be was in the interests of anyone, and especially, how this would save a billion pounds. There is no reason why a small business wouldn’t be one of the enterprises running Change Britain’s UK DP at home, and the GDPR abroad, notwithstanding the *increase* in red tape that their proposal would involve. Change Britain want two laws in place of one, after all.

Despite claiming that Data Protection doesn’t work, Change Britain have not carried out any analysis on the burdens associated with it to underpin their demand that it should be abolished. They have not calculated the cost of abolishing it and replacing it with something else – indeed, I would go as far as to say that they showed no evidence of having thought about it. They could only point me to the previous government’s (now outdated) view of GDPR, and reports produced by the British Chambers of Commerce in 2005 and 2010. It seems to be a case of UK good, EU bad, even as the GDPR is being scrutinised around the world as a model to emulate, or at least react to.

Change Britain’s abolition of the DPA and the abandonment of the GDPR is an economically illiterate idea on a par with Vote Leave’s NHS Bus Promise. It makes no sense except as a sound-bite in a press release designed solely for headlines and incapable of surviving serious analysis. Change Britain’s idea is the opposite of what the Government has told UK businesses to prepare for. It is a recipe for confusion and uncertainty. It is utterly irresponsible.

Whatever you think of Brexit, it has wiped the future clean. Anyone who confidently predicts what the UK will look like in 2020 or 2025 is a fool or a liar. I think it will be a disaster, but other opinions are equally valid. The UK Government’s confirmation that GDPR will apply is a small strand of certainty. Even though the Secretary of State left the door open for change at some stage (which she has every right to do), we know what’s coming next for Data Protection, despite Brexit. In their antipathy towards the EU and all its works, Change Britain want to murder even this tiny certainty. They have no original thoughts on why they think it’s a good idea beyond money-saving that they cannot possibly stand up. They cannot offer any hint of what they want to replace DPA / GDPR with, except that it must be homegrown. It cannot be European in origin. I very much hope that their proposal gets the shortest shrift that the DCMS has in stock.

Make no mistake, compliance with GDPR will be difficult for some, but I suspect that many of the organisations most keen to decry the GDPR would struggle equally to comply with the 1984 Data Protection Act, produced by the Thatcher Government, which even now has parallels with both our current DP Act and the GDPR. The GDPR is clearer, less technical and more understandable than the DPA. It is in most ways an improvement. Change Britain’s proposal is vandalism, and we should wash it away.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I voted Remain, I wholly accept that the UK is going to leave the EU as a result of the referendum, I am more convinced than I was before that it is a stupid idea, and in a free country, you should defend my right to say so.

Small change

Some senior figures in the charity sector have sought to deal with the Information Commissioner’s recent enforcement against the RSPCA and the British Heart Foundation by suggesting that the ICO’s action is disproportionate and unfair. The fundraiser sorry, academic, Ian MacQuillin has written two blogs which touch on the theme, while a few days ago, Robert Meadowcroft, the Chief Executive of Muscular Dystrophy UK tweeted:

If the is impartial regulator it will investigate practices of and not simply pursue charities

As 2016 is now disappearing over the horizon, I thought it was worth testing the hypothesis that the ICO is taking disproportionate action against charities, and the fines and other enforcement against charities are unrepresentative. TL:DR – it’s complete nonsense.

In 2016, the ICO issued 34 civil monetary penalties – 11 under the Data Protection Act, and 23 under the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations (PECR). There are a number of different ways of looking at the figures, and none of them show any evidence of disproportionality.

1) Charity CMPs as a proportion of the total in 2016

Of the 34 penalties, 2 were against charities, so 6% of the ICO’s CMPs in 2016 were against charities.

2) Amount charities were fined, as a proportion of the total in 2016

The CMP total was £3,225,500. The total of CMPs issued against charities was £43,000. This is 1.3% of the total.

3) Proportion of Data Protection CMPs issued to charities in 2016

If you look only at the CMPs issued under Data Protection, the charity proportion is not insignificant – there were 11 DP CMPs, so the 2 charity CMPs are 18% of the total – the same as the police, 1 more than councils, but less than the private sector or the NHS (3 each). However, this is the only comparison where charities feature significantly, and they are not the dominant sector. The next two comparisons are also instructive.

4) Proportion of PECR CMPs issued to charities in 2016

None. This is despite widespread breaches of PECR by charities, including phoning donors who are on TPS and sending texts and emails without consent (for example, the vast majority of mobile numbers gathered via charity posters in 2016 were obtained in breach of PECR).

5) Proportion of CMPs issued for marketing related activities in 2o16

There were 21 PECR CMPs related to marketing, and 2 DP CMPs related to marketing, making 23 marketing CMPs in all. 2 were against charities, which is 9.5% of the total. Given the big charities’ disastrous approach to marketing, this relatively small number is astonishing.

6) Level of CMPs in 2016

The average DP CMP was £108,500; the average charity DP CMP was £21,500.

The average PECR CMP was £84,666.75; there were no charity PECR CMPs.

The highest DP CMP was £400,000; the highest charity DP CMP was £25,000.

7) Other enforcement in 2016

There were 22 enforcement notices issued by the ICO in 2016, 8 under DP and 14 under PECR. 1 of the 8 DP enforcement notices was against a charity, which is 4.5% of the total, or 12.5% of the total DP enforcement notices. Either way, it is a small percentage of the total. Again, if you count the number of marketing related enforcement notices, there were 15, of which 1 was against a charity. This is 6.6% of the total.

8) CMPs since 2010

There have been 69 DP CMPs since 2010 that I can find (they drop off the ICO’s website after a few years); 4 were issued against registered charities, which is 5.8% of the total. The average DP CMP was £114, 163, whereas the average charity was £78,250. It is worth noting that these figures are slightly skewed by the £200,000 penalty against the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, which is a registered charity but receives most of its funding from the NHS.

The CMP against the British Heart Foundation was the 8th lowest CMP overall, while the CMP against the RSPCA was the 9th lowest. The only organisations to receive lower penalties than the charities were small businesses, unincorporated associations, and a bankrupt lawyer.

There have been 47 PECR CMPs that I can find since 2012; none have been issued on charities, which is 0% of the total.

Conclusion

These figures will likely be different in 2017. The ICO has signalled that more DP enforcement against charities is coming, and so the proportion of DP penalties may rise when the totals are in, but that depends on a variety of different factors including the number of other penalties and the ICO’s general approach. However, when you look at the facts for 2016, MacQuillin and Meadowcroft are wrong. Despite years of ignoring the Data Protection and PECR requirements in favour of a flawed, fundraiser-driven approach, the ICO has not taken disproportionate action against the charities. The action taken is a small percentage of the overall total. Special pleading and blame-shifting will not help the sector. Compliance with the law will.

Human Wrongs

A few years ago I went to Strasbourg, home of the famous European Court of Human Rights. After admiring the building itself, I noticed a disabled man camping on the other side of the tracks that take visitors to the tram stop named, rather piously, ‘Droits De L’Homme’. He had a huge display in several languages, setting out the appalling injustice that the Court had dealt him by not upholding his case. There were several such men, who would no doubt have treated a ECHR victory as total vindication, but the loss was evidence only of the Court’s bias and corruption. I immediately thought of the notorious FOI applicant and progenitor of vexatious caselaw Alan Dransfield, and wondered if one day, he would be one of the poor souls, earnestly telling his sorry tale to tourists. This is unlikely of course, because Dransfield would spend his time shouting at every passer-by that they were a dickhead.

Nevertheless, the website ‘Amazon News Media’ chose to celebrate International Human Rights Day last month (10th December, diary fans) by publishing an open letter from Dransfield to the Justice Secretary Elizabeth Truss. Fans of Dransfield’s work will be pleased to see a number of familiar themes in the letter. Dransfield claims that the Information Commissioner’s Office is guilty of fraud and theft of public funds. There is ‘tangible evidence‘ that they, along with multiple public authorities, are involved in a conspiracy to pervert the course of justice:

The evidence of complicity between the ICO and Public Authorities seeking to avoid obligations under FOI by consistent misuse and abuse of Section 14/1 vexatious exemption is overwhelming

Dransfield doesn’t specify what the overwhelming / tangible evidence is, beyond asserting that he lost his case at the Court of Appeal, so QED: the fix is in. The letter makes a series of allegations about the ICO and demands that the Commissioner is sacked and replaced by himself. The allegations are a mixture of falsehood (he says that they don’t publish their register of interests when they do) and opinion (he claims it is a breach of an unspecified EU Trade law that the ICO usually uses 11KBW for legal services, ignoring the fact that they are the leading information law chambers in the UK). The only verifiable claim is the conflict of interest in having a council leader act as a manager of a team that deals with complaints about councils and political parties. Dransfield only knows about this because I did an FOI request about it and wrote about it here (inevitably, Dransfield spells his name wrong and the mistake slipped through Amazon News Media’s presumably robust fact checking procedures).

If you’re not familiar with it, the scale of the Dransfield conspiracy is breathtaking – construction companies including Balfour Beatty, multiple councils, the Health and Safety Executive, Dransfield’s MP Ben Bradshaw, the previous and current Information Commissioners and many of their staff, West Ham United, the Olympic Delivery Authority and various other Olympic bodies, former secretary of state Chris Grayling, myself, the Upper Tribunal, the Court of Appeal, the Supreme Court and the House of Lords, all working tirelessly to cover up the construction of a network of unsafe buildings and bridges across the UK. Only Dransfield has the insight to see the conspiracy in all its Byzantine complexity, and the entire UK legal system is ranged against him to stop his crusade.

There is, of course, another perspective, but Amazon News Media have seemingly backed Dransfield with gusto. The accompanying editorial hails “Mr Dransfield’s long experience as a social watchdog” and complains of his “extensive scapegoating” but demonstrates a slender grasp on the facts. For example, it claims that vexatiousness was planted at the second, Upper Tier Tribunal, rather than being a feature of the original refusal dealt with by the ICO. Moreover, like Dransfield, Amazon News Media make big play of the fact that it was the ICO who appealed to the Upper Tribunal and Court of Appeal, describing it as an “abuse” of the system. When Dransfield went to the First Tier Tribunal, he was appealing the ICO’s decision, not Devon’s original refusal. If the ICO disagrees with the FTT, it is they (and not Devon) who must take forward the appeal. The appeal process is not open only to the applicant – public authorities and applicants can challenge the Commissioner, but the Commissioner is entitled to challenge decisions that they think are wrong. This is how the system is designed, and Dransfield chose to use that system. Complaining about the result of a process you initiated is acting like the men outside the ECHR.

I put a comment on the Amazon News Media blog, pointing out that I had made 100s* of FOI requests without ever being refused as vexatious (the issue of Alex Ganotis’ role at the ICO just being one of many), pointing out that Dransfield’s hostility and abusive character is probably part of the problem. An unnamed representative of the organisation dismissed this – apparently, when Dransfield called the Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham a ‘useless cow’ on Twitter, this was just “colourful language [that] perhaps reflects the insult of having your name unreasonably scape-goated for half a decade“. So perhaps the insult is Denham’s fault for not giving Dransfield the face-to-face meeting he’s been demanding since July. It’s an odd perspective, because Dransfield has been calling me a prick and a dickhead for disagreeing with him ever since this mess started.

I can’t work out who runs the Amazon News Media site – it describes itself as “an evidence-based website practising freelance written and video journalism“, but the website, Twitter account and Facebook page are all somewhat anonymous. The site itself is registered to a David Hodgson in New Zealand, but the nameless person who runs the Twitter account told me that it is based in Swansea. Whoever they are,

UPDATE: I know who they are. I’ve read all 59 pages of the judgement.

They have made a fatal error in their analysis of Dransfield’s case. The editorial states that Dransfield enjoys “superior knowledge of lighting protection systems, and Health and Safety regulations” – the problem is that this is irrelevant to the case. S14 of FOI has no public interest test – it’s not about the information, but the process.

The Information Commissioner, the two Tribunals and the Court of Appeal are not supposed to decide whether Dransfield is right about the unsafe buildings. For the record, I think the conspiracy is a complete fantasy, and Dransfield’s requests are the result of a grudge against his former employer, Balfour Beatty. None of Dransfield’s blood-curdling predictions about fatal lightning strikes have come true, and I am not aware of anyone in the UK Health and Safety sector who backs his theories (I’m famously an arsehole and lots of people agree with me about Data Protection despite this impediment).

None of this matters. The question in play is not one about Health and Safety. The question is whether Dransfield’s torrent of requests, complaints and other correspondence were an abuse of the FOI system. Dransfield had every opportunity to put his case before four independent bodies – one of them agreed with him, and the others did not. It’s not impossible for Dransfield to be right about the buildings (as unlikely as this may seem) and yet, because of his hostility, his stubbornness and the sheer weight of his requests, they tip into vexatiousness.

Ironically, despite Dransfield’s antipathy towards the ICO (and his misogyny towards the new Commissioner), his demand that the ICO sort out the vexatious issue is completely wide of the mark. Even if Denham accepted that he was right, she is powerless to reverse the Dransfield decision. If Wilmslow executed a volte face tomorrow, the Court of Appeal decision would still stand. Public authorities could use the CoA judgement against the ICO in the Tribunals who would be bound by it. Only the courts can change the decision – it is out of the Commissioner’s hands. It’s tempting to believe that Dransfield knows this, and he directs his rage toward the ICO solely because he enjoys it, rather than knowing it will change the outcome.

In the end, Amazon News Media grew tired of my interventions and refused to publish my final comment unless I edited out all of the mansplaining, repetition and “snark”. Instead of being censored, you can – if you wish – read the comments on ANM, and then, by way of a conclusion to all this, I reproduce the comment that they found so objectionable.

You can twist what I have said in any direction that suits you. The decisions that the ICO makes are, obviously, about the public interest (where that applies, and with some exemptions, it doesn’t). Sometimes they get those decisions wrong, sometimes they get them right. When a decision has been tested at several levels, and then looked at subsequently by differently constituted tribunals, you have two choices. Either you can believe that there is an enormous conspiracy to subvert the FOI Act, or you can look at the particular case and decide that maybe the system got it right. There is no inner truth here – you believe what you want to believe based on your own prejudices.

What I said above is that Mr Dransfield’s letter, your publication of it and your conspiracy theories about the legal system will have no practical effect. Truss will not intervene because it isn’t her place to intervene in legal cases. The European Court of Human Rights will not intervene, because Mr Dransfield has been refused leave to appeal there. These are facts – you can put a political / paranoid spin on them if you like, but the spin doesn’t change the facts. If you want to stop vexatious decisions being made under Dransfield, someone needs to take a case all the way to the Court of Appeal and get Dransfield overturned. Alternatively, the FOI Act will have to be amended in Parliament. Given that you think the entire legal system is corrupt, I assume you’re not much keener on MPs. Which makes all of the above a monumental waste of time. But at least it gives you and Dransfield something to do.

* ANM refuse to believe that I have made 100s of FOI requests without proof. Given that they are willing to turn an abusive blowhard into a Human Rights champion without any justification, I am content to say that I have, and if they or you don’t believe me, I don’t care.

** It has been suggested to me that in my comment above, I said that the Court of Appeal can overturn Dransfield, whereas the suggestion is that actually, only the Supreme Court can do it i.e. the court *above* the Court of Appeal. If this is right (and I suspect that it is), the difficulty of reversing Dransfield is greater.