THE DETAIL team started work on investigations into and for Northern Ireland in January 2011.
Since then a theme has emerged in our many dealings with departments of the Northern Ireland Executive and government agencies: delay.
We’ve decided to share with our readers and viewers some of the problems we encounter trying to get information, especially from public bodies. Most, but not all, feature lengthy waits to receive information sought in the public interest.
This feature will be updated regularly with new stories and new developments in the cases below.
LAST UPDATED FEBRUARY 2012 – SEE FIRST THREE STORIESRE-WRITING THE RECORD
MARCH 21 2011: Request submitted to the Health and Social Care Board for copies of executive summaries of case management review reports. CMRs are carried out when a child dies or is seriously injured and abuse or neglect is known or suspected to be a factor. They aim to establish whether there are lessons to be learned about the way in which professionals and statutory or voluntary agencies worked to safeguard children. The request is submitted under the Freedom of Information Act.
JULY 21 2011: Response received, 84 days after request submitted and 64 working days over the statutory timescale. Extensions – which the FoI Act stipulates should constitute only a short delay – had been sought from the HSCB and granted by The Detail. The final decision of the HSCB is to withhold the reports and instead provided a rewritten summary of their content.
JULY 27 2011: The decision is appealed by The Detail as set out under the Act: a request for an internal review.
SEPTEMBER 30 2011: Internal review response is given by the HSCB. It upholds the original decision to withhold the documents.
SEPTEMBER 8 2011: Formal complaint lodged by The Detail with the Information Commissioner’s Office in London.
NOVEMBER 16 2011: Our case is allocated to a case worker.
DECEMBER 5 2011: Senior case officer emails initial letter regarding our case. This states that it usually takes about four months to complete an investigation.
FEBRUARY 14 2012: Five months into the investigation, we receive an email from a Senior Case Office at the Information Commissioner’s Office. This states that the case worker has written to the HSCB to ask for its arguments in relation to the information it has withheld in this case. The email continues: “Due to the complex nature of the case HSCB has requested additional time to consider its response. I have agreed to this in order to ensure that the submission is comprehensive. I hope to be in a position to provide you with a more detailed update in the next month.” The message concludes by thanking us for our patience in this matter…
STATUS: STILL WAITING FOR THE DOCUMENTS REQUESTED…SPECIAL ADVICE SOUGHT
January 17 2012: The Detail contacts OFMDFM press office to request information regarding government spending on advertising.
January 18 2012: We contact OFMDFM press office but are informed that a response cannot be issued until it has been cleared by a Stormont special adviser (SPAD). OFMDFM is the only government department in which press releases cannot be released until they have been approved by special advisers.
January 19 2012: The Detail contacts OFMDFM and again fails to receive a response to its three-day-old request.
January 20 2012: We contact OFMDFM for a fourth time for time but again are provided with no response as to why the information is being withheld by special advisers.
January 25 2012: Following eight-day delay, the Detail lodges an official complaint to the Central Management Unit (CMU), the body which officially investigates allegations of wrongdoing and abuse of power within OFMDFM. Within hours of complaint being submitted, a CMU spokeswoman informs us that the complaint is to be investigated by the Executive Information Service (EIS), the body responsible for issuing OFMDFM communications.
February 10 2012: The Detail is informed by the Executive Information Service’s (EIS) that it is “unable to substaniate” our complaint that an answer to a basic press inquiry was withheld for 10 working days because it required the approval of a political special advisor (SPAD) within OFMDFM. The independent investigation into our complaint, which is sent to The Detail on OFMDFM headed notepaper, states that our press inquiry “did take some time to answer” but claims the delay was caused by the complex nature of the request for a breakdown of the government’s spending on advertising. The response which The Detail received after 10 working days amount to a single table outlining the overall spending of each department. The Detail does not accept the response and has appealed the decision.
STATUS: STILL WAITING FOR A RESPONSE TO A SIMPLE REQUEST. ALSO NOW WAITING FOR AN APPEAL OF THE OUTCOME OF A COMPLAINT INTO THE HANDLING OF THE REQUEST.THE MINISTER, THE CONTRACTOR AND NO INFORMATION RELEASED
JULY 15 2011: An FoI request is submitted to the Department for Social Development asking for documents relating to meetings between the minister, Nelson McCausland, and the contractor, Red Sky, about a major contract with the Housing Executive. The request, which should be processed within 20 working days, goes unacknowledged and unanswered.
NOVEMBER 18 2011: E-mail sent to the Department about the request, asking for a reason for the delay and asking when a response can be expected.
NOVEMBER 18 2011: Response from the Department FoI unit states: “I apologise for the delay in replying to your request for information. The Department is still considering your request and a reply will be issued in due course.”
NOVEMBER 23 2011: We respond to the department stating that we are completely dissatisfied with its answer.
NOVEMBER 29 2011: We receive an e-mail from the FoI officer, stating: “I apologise for the delay in replying to your email below but I was awaiting being advised of the current position of your request clearance. The position remains the same as you were previously notified. The Department is still considering your request and a response will be issued when a final decision is taken.”
JANUARY 12 2012: We ask DSD press office why four FOI requests [including our own], submitted to the department have been omitted from its disclosure log of FOI requests on its website; what were they seeking and the fate of each of them.
JANUARY 12 2012: A DSD spokesman tells The Detail that the “Department is still considering the requests".
JANUARY 12 2012: We again ask about the four FoI requests missing from the disclosure log; DSD replies that the log is updated on a quarterly basis.
JANUARY 12 2012: The Detail sends another e-mail to DSD, stating that the disclosure log actually appears to be updated on a monthly rather than a quarterly basis. By close of play the DSD has failed to fails to provide any response to the question of why four FoI requests have been withheld or the nature of the requests.
FEBRUARY 14, 2012: A full eight months after The Detail’s initial FoI inquiry DSD is still refusing to release any information to us. It is also refusing to give any explanation as to why it continues to block access to an issue of major public interest. The Information Commissioner has now agreed to The Detail’s request for a full investigation into its complaint.
CURRENT STATUS: STILL AWAITING A RESPONSE TO THE INITIAL FoI REQUEST, INFORMATION ON FoI REQUESTS MISSING FROM THE DSD FoI LOG AND AN INFORMATION COMMISSIONER’S INVESTIGATION.HELPING WITH ENQUIRIES – THE PSNI
MAY 13 2011: A request for information covering a ten-year period under the Freedom of Information Act is e-mailed to the PSNI.
JUNE 10 2011: The PSNI responds, saying the request for information over 10 years would exceed the appropriate cost limit for an FoI. Discussions start on an appropriate timescale for the request to cover.
JUNE 30 2011 Agreement is reached on the period the FoI request will apply to: six months; and the area covered: six of Northern Ireland’s eight districts.
AUGUST 1 2011: Information is received.
CURRENT STATUS: INFORMATION RECEIVED 11 WEEKS AFTER THE REQUEST WAS SUBMITTEDORGAN DONATION
JUNE 21 2011 Request made to the Department of Justice seeking information for a possible story on organ donation.
JULY 14 2011: DoJ refers us to Royal Brompton Hospital in London.
AUGUST 6 2011: Royal Brompton informs us that they have the information but that it would take “some time” to collate.
AUGUST – DECEMBER 2011: numerous requests made by phone and e-mail for a response.
CURRENT STATUS: STILL WAITING FOR A RESPONSE.LEGISLATION CONSULTATION DISORIENTATION
JUNE 21 2011: E-mail sent to a press officer in the Department of Health seeking to verify or clarify information provided by an outside source about a consultation which the department is said to be running into a possible amendment of legislation.
JUNE 29 2011: Phone calls and e-mails sent requesting a response or guidance about when a response will come.
JULY 1 2011: Response received informing us that there are “no plans to amend legislation and so no plans to consult.”
JULY 4 2011: Given the strength of our own information, including documentation, we submit a new enquiry, querying this response.
JULY 11 2011: Still no response; e-mail sent to chase this up.
JULY 14 2011: A new response is sent confirming: “Changes to the regulations have been consulted on, including consultation with the HSSPS Committee, and it appears that we are at the technical stage of getting the regulations made.”
CURRENT STATUS: RESOLVED AFTER MORE THAN THREE WEEKS OF EXCHANGESWITHELD IN THE NAME OF PATIENT CONFIDENTIALITY
JULY 4 2011: Freedom of Information request is submitted to the Department of Health for copies of reports on serious adverse incidents which took place within the health and social care system.
AUGUST 5 2011: The department responds saying it has decided to withhold the reports. The letter states: “The Department considers that these reports which are related to specific patient and client events are of such a confidential, personal and sensitive nature that they are not in the public interest to disclose and would potentially endanger patient/client privacy or confidentiality.”
AUGUST 8 2011: Internal review of decision to withhold documents requested by The Detail.
AUGUST 15 2011: Request formally acknowledged. The letter states: “It is expected that the internal review will be completed by 6th September 2011 but if this target date cannot be met I will write to you again and explain the reason for the delay.”
SEPTEMBER 7 2011: We email the Department of Health to ask for an update as no response was sent by September 6th.
SEPTEMBER 8 2011: Email sent from Information Management Branch of DHSSPSNI. It apologises for the delay and states: “The response is being prepared and will be issued to you early next week.”
SEPTEMBER 14 2011: We email again to say we have not received a response. Same day response says they need to speak to the person carrying out the review to find out what the position is and will get back to us the next morning.
SEPTEMBER 15: Information Management Branch says that the person carrying out the review has raised a number of queries with the business area and is waiting for a response. She apologises for the delay but adds: “I am sure that you appreciate he needs full answers to his queries before he can make a decision.”
SEPTEMBER 21 2011: She emails again and says that the business area concerned has been asked to address some issues in relation to the initial response issued to us. They anticipate this will take another week. She apologises for the delay and says she will keep us informed.
SEPTEMBER 30 2011: We email the Information Management Branch to ask for an update on the internal review.
OCTOBER 3 2011: The internal review is completed. A letter emailed to us states that the limitation of our request to death and serious injury serious adverse incidents was incorrect and the application of section 41 exemption to all of the incidents assessed was incorrect. Both should be reviewed as a matter of urgency.
OCTOBER 4 2011: The reports we requested are released. Only confidential information is redacted.
CURRENT STATUS: INFORMATION PROVIDEDPSNI 2: KEEPING THE PEACE
JUNE 22 2011: Request for figures on the number of security alerts in Northern Ireland, including hoaxes in the year 2010/2011 is submitted via a member of the Policing Board.
JULY 7 2011: The PB member tells us the PSNI does not hold this data.
JULY 26 2011: Request submitted to the PSNI via press office.
JULY 27 2011: PSNI press officer responds by phone saying they are unable to provide us with this information.
CURRENT STATUS: UNRESOLVEDDEFINITIONS AND DELIBERATIONS
AUGUST 25: FoI request submitted to the Department of Finance and Personnel for information on a subject we are investigating – Ministerial Directions – over a five-year period
AUGUST 31: We receive a response from the DFP press office seeking clarification on the terminology used and seeking a reduction in the timescale covered by the request.
SEPTEMBER 5 2011: We respond by e-mail and a term of words is agreed.
SEPTEMBER 27 2011: DFP informs us in writing that it has “no information on Ministerial Directions”.
OCTOBER 11 2011: Request submitted to all Departments under FoI for the information.
OCTOBER 26 2011: Department of Health responds saying it has none of the documents we are seeking. Other departments, bar OFMDFM give the same response over the next few days.
NOVEMBER 8 2011: OFMDFM’s response on the subject arrives. It states: “Since 1st January 2001 there has been one Ministerial Direction issued within the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. The Ministerial Direction was issued on 6th September 2011 and it was requested by Mr Noel Lavery, Accounting Officer.”
CURRENT STATUS: STILL UNRESOLVEDWE CAN’T WORK IT OUT
JULY 28 2011: Media request sent to DHSSPSNI press office asking: (a) How much money has been spent on forming the Northern Ireland dementia strategy to date? And (b) does the Department have an overall budgetary commitment of how much they are willing to spend on the strategy?
JULY 29 2011: Response from the Department stating: “Excluding the costs of Steering Group and Project Team members’ time, approximately £50,000 has been spent on work to develop the dementia strategy."
AUGUST 2 2011: Follow-up email sent to DHSSPSNI press office asking it to outline the total cost of money spent on developing the dementia strategy, including the costs of Steering group and project team members’ time.
AUGUST 2 2011: A spokesperson for the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety states: “It is currently not possible to provide a further breakdown of costs for developing the dementia strategy.”
AUGUST 18 2011: Freedom of Information request submitted to the Department, asking for a breakdown of costs including the costs of the Steering group and project team members’ time.
SEPTEMBER 1 2011: Response arrives, stating: “Regarding the costs of the steering group and project team members’ time, following a search of our paper and electronic records, I have established that this information is not held by this Department."
SEPTEMBER 2 2011: The minutes of all Steering Group meetings requested.
SEPTEMBER 26 2011: Minutes received. But still unable to get total cost despite the department knowing the number of staff involved in the meetings, their ranks; and the number of times they met and where.
CURRENT STATUS: INFORMATION NOT RECEIVEDFSNI: INFORMATION ABOUT DELAYS … DELAYED
SEPTEMBER 5 2011: Request for information submitted to Forensic Science Northern Ireland under the Freedom of Information Act by e-mail about complaints of delays in its work.
SEPTEMBER 30 2011: FSNI informs us that it is imposing an extension to the processing of our request (a reasonable extension is permitted under the FoIA) to allow it time to explore the law enforcement and possible prejudicing public affairs issues.
OCTOBER 31 2011: We receive an e-mail from FSNI informing us that it is again extending the time-scale for it to process our request. We are told we will receive a response on November 11.
NOVEMBER 11 2011: No response arrives.
NOVEMBER 14 2011: We send an e-mail to FSNI asking why we have received no response.
NOVEMBER 14 2011: FSNI e-mails a partial response. This is marked “For information and outside FOI”. It also informs us that it is taking another 12 days to respond to the rest of the request.
NOVEMBER 24 2011: The bulk of information sought is produced and forms the basis of this story. However we later discover that FSNI has withheld one letter in its possession on this subject without letting us know about it (the FoI Act requires public agencies to inform those seeking information what information it holds).
DECEMBER 1 2011: A request is submitted to FSNI seeking the outstanding piece of correspondence – a letter from the Justice Minister, David Ford, to the Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan.
JANUARY 4 2011: We receive an e-mail from FSNI the Department, in which it emerges it is treating our request as a formal internal review which allows room for another wait of 20 working days. It reminds us: “You were advised that we would endeavour to inform you of the outcome of the internal review no later than 4 January 2012. Unfortunately because of the Christmas holidays it has taken longer than expected to complete the internal review. However, we expect to be in position to respond to you by Friday 13 January 2012 at the latest.”
JANUARY 12 2011: The day this feature of The Detail website goes live, we receive an e-mail from FSNI. It says the panel which carried out the review of this request was “informed that while senior members of FSNI staff had been advised/were aware of the contents of this particular letter, no copy of the actual correspondence issued by the Justice Minister had been provided by or is retained by Forensic Science NI.” It says it has, however, decided to obtain a copy of the letter and provide it to us. The letter is released. However key sections outlining how the minister intends to deal with FSNI delays are redacted.
CURRENT STATUS: REQUEST COMPLETED ON JANUARY 12, MORE THAN FOUR MONTHS AFTER THE REQUEST WAS SUBMITTEDJUSTICE DELAYED … AND AGAIN
OCTOBER 27 2011: Freedom of Information requests sent to both the Department of Health and Department of Justice. Both departments acknowledge the requests and say they will endeavour to respond by November 24 2011.
NOVEMBER 25 2011: Department of Health, Social Services & Public Safety provides the information being sought, explaining a small amount of information is not being not disclosed and has been redacted under the FOI Section 40 exemption – personal information.
NOVEMBER 25 2011: Department of Justice says it needs an extension. The information requested will now be supplied on December 22 2011.
DECEMBER 21 2011: Department of Justice write again to say another extension is required, this time to January 24 2012.
JANUARY 3 2012: We object to the delay in writing.
JANUARY 4 2012: DoJ FoI office responds apologising for the delay, maintaining that it has been caused by a requirement to consider the public interest under three separate exemptions including consultation with a third party. “We are aiming to provide a full response to your request as soon as possible and no later than 24 January 2012.”
JANUARY 30, 2012 – DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE PROVIDE WRITTEN ANSWERS AND APOLOGISE AGAIN FOR THE LATEST DELAYEASIER THAN FoI?
NOVEMBER 7 2011: A request is submitted to the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust under the Freedom of Information Act.
NOVEMBER 7 2011: An FoI officer in the Belfast Trust responds to say that the request could be processed more quickly as a media request. We take them at their word under the understanding that we will be sent the same information as a FoI request would provide.
NOVEMBER 30 2011: We receive a response from the Trust’s FOI department, stating: “We are not able to provide the information requested as this would be personal data and exempt under the Freedom of Information Act.” Despite the fact that it was not submitted under FOI legislation.
DECEMBER 5 2011: No response from the trust’s press office – and on the day that the FoI request would, by law, have had to have been processed.
DECEMBER 13 2011: Response finally received from Belfast trust press office.
CURRENT STATUS: RESOLVED 26 DAYS AFTER REQUEST SUBMITTED (THE FoI LIMIT IS 20 DAYS)A CONFIDENTIALITY REQUEST
NOVEMBER 21 2011: E-mail sent/phone call made to the Northern Ireland Ombudsman’s office for further information about a complaint made by a patient who was the victim of a late cancer diagnosis in April 2008. We seek clarification about when and how the Ombudsman’s office liaised with the Belfast Health and Social Care trust.
NOVEMBER 25 2011: A spokesperson for the Ombudsman’s office says they cannot provide any more information on this case “due to a confidentiality request” and it refused to comment any further.
CURRENT STATUS: INFORMATION NOT RECEIVED