A couple of notices taken out in this week’s Isle of Wight County Press by the Isle of Wight Council raise notice that a couple more areas are to become “designated public spaces”, which means that the police and other recognised officers are allowed to confiscate alcohol (no drinking on the beach…).
Despite my best efforts, I failed to find a listing on the Isle of Wight Council website detailing all designated public spaces on the island, or showing maps of their extent.
As with other council orders that have a geographical component, I am ever hopeful that appropriate maps will be made available, in the case of designated public places as a shapefile, not least because I generally have no idea what boundaries the notices refer to when they just describe road names and other geographical features (“along the beach to the point in line with the junction of Whitecross Lane and Whitecross Farm Lane”, for example…). The notice does say “as shown on the map to be attached to the Order”, but I can’t readily find the order on the council website to see whether the map has yet been attached (maybe it’s buried in papers relating to licensing committee meetings?) I did manage to find a map (search: designated public place lake/) but only because I read URLs…
Re: finding maps relating to DPPOs, I’ve had this problem before. The same criticisms still apply – the Home OFfice don’t appear to maintain a single register of DPPOs in force, despite the original guidance note saying they would, although they will release the data at a crude level in response to an FOI request. Again, I wonder about setting up an FOI repeater to schedule monthly submissions of the same request to handle this sort of query to the Home Office.
Drawing on the fan in/fan out notion, a Home Office aggregation of the data represents a large fan-in of data from separate councils, and seems to be the easiest place to get hold of such data. However, it would help if they also requested and made available information about the geographical extent of each order as a shapefile.
Here’s the map, though I’m not clear whether I’m breaching copyright in displaying it without permission:
Returning to the notice, I can’t find it displayed on the Isle of Wight County Press website, or on OnTheWight, our hyperlocal blog, despite online fora being legitimate spaces for publishing notices, so I guess buying the County Press is another of those effective taxes I need to pay to keep up with council notices (spending – (click search to run…)).
(As well as posting notices in the IWCP, why doesn’t the council have a /notices area of the website to which it could post its statutory announcements in addition to any other media channels it uses that would act as a convenient, authoritative and archival repository of such notices? [NB quite a few councils do have an area for public notices on their website. For example, do a web search for intitle:"public notices" site:gov.uk] In addition, an area of the site detailing orders in place and in force on the Island so we could keep up with how freedoms are being restricted at any time by the council.)
In passing, whilst trying to find details about DPPOs on the island, I came across a copy of the consultation around the DPPOs on the Gurnard Parish Council website:
The Isle of Wight County Council has received a request from the Hampshire Constabulary to consider the imposition of Designated Public Place Orders (DPPOs) in …”
Hmm… so does the Hampshire Constabulary website list the extent of DPPOs in the region it covers? (I note on WhatDoTheKnow several people have FOId information about DPPOs from police forces.)
I’m pretty sure there’s a DPPO covering Ryde (here’s an example of additional evidence from Hampshire Constabulary offered in support of DPPO in Ryde in 2007 that was use to support an application for an order at that time) but I can’t find any statement about where, or if, such an order applies on the Isle of Wight Council website, or on the appropriate local neighbourhood area of the Hampshire Constabulary site.
So the only way for me to find out is to go round Ryde looking for a signs, and maybe (outside chance) a notice that has a map of the area? Hmm…
PS Just by the by, shapefiles would also help when it comes to working out which bits of the beach I can and can’t walk the dog on…
In digital electronics, the notions of fan in and fan out describe, respectively, the number of inputs a gate (or, on a chip, a pin) can handle, or the number of output connections it can drive. I’ve been thinking about this notion quite a bit, recently, in the context of concentrating information, or data, about a particular service.
For example, suppose I want to look at the payments made by a local council, as declared under transparency regulations. I can get the data for a particular council from a particular source. If we consider each organisation that the council makes a payment to as a separate output (that is, as a connection that goes between that council and the particular organisation), the fan out of the payment data gives the number of distinct organisations that the council has made a declared payment to.
One things councils do is make payments to other public bodies who have provided them with some service or other. This may include other councils (for example, for the delivery of services relating to out of area social care).
Why might this be useful? If we aggregate the payments data from different councils, we can set up a database that allows us to look at all payments from different councils to a particular organisation, (which may also be a particular council, which is obliged to publish its transaction data, as well as a private company, which currently isn’t). (See Using Aggregated Local Council Spending Data for Reverse Spending (Payments to) Lookups for an example of this. I think startup Spend Network are aggregating this data, but they don’t seem to be offering any useful open or free services, or data collections, off the back of it. OpenSpending has some data, but it’s scattergun in what’s there and what isn’t, depending as it does on volunteer data collectors and curators.)
The payments incoming to a public body from other public bodies are therefore available as open data, but not in a generally, or conveniently, concentrated way. The fan in public payments is given by the number of public bodies that have made a payment to a particular body (which may itself be a public body or may be a private company). If the fan in is large, it can be a major chore searching through the payments data of all the other public bodies trying to track down payments to the body of interest.
Whilst I can easily discover fan out payments from a public body, I can’t easily discover the originators of fan in public payments to a body, public or otherwise. Except that I could possibly FOI a public body for this information (“please send me a list of payments you have received from these bodies…”).
As more and more public services get outsourced to private contractors, I wonder if those private contractors will start to buy services off the public providers? I may be able to FOI the public providers for their receipts data (any examples of this, successful or otherwise?), but I wouldn’t be able to find any publicly disclosed payments data from the private provider to the public provider.
The transparency matrix thus looks something like this:
- payment from public body to public body: payment disclosed as public data, receipts available from analysis of all public body payment data (and reciipts FOIable from receiver?)
- payment from public body to private body: payment disclosed as public data; total public payments to private body can be ascertained by inspecting payments data of all public bodies. Effective fan-in can be increased by setting up different companies to receive payments and make it harder to aggregate total public monies incoming to a corporate group. (Would be useful if private companied has to disclose: a) total amount of public monies received from any public source, exceeding some threshold; b) individual payments above a certain value from a public body)
- payment from private body to public body: receipt FOIable from public body? No disclosure requirement on private body? Private body can effectively reduce fan out (that is, easily identified concentration of outgoing payments) by setting up different companies through which payments are made.
- payment from private body to private body: no disclosure requirements.
I have of course already wondered Do We Need Open Receipts Data as Well as Open Spending Data?. My current take on this would perhaps argue in favour of requiring all bodies, public or private, that receive more than £25,000, for example, in total per financial year from a particular corporate group* to declare all the transactions (over £500, say) from that body. A step on the road towards that would be to require bodies that receive more than a certain amount of receipts summed from across all public bodies to be subject to FOI at least in respect of payments data received from public bodies.
* We would need to define a corporate group somehow, to get round companies setting up EvilCo Public Money Receiving Company No. 1, EvilCo Public Money Receiving Company No. 2354 Ltd, etc, each of which only ever invoices up to £24,999. There would also have to be a way of identifying payments from the same public body but made through different accounts (for example, different local council directorates).
Whilst this would place a burden on all bodies, it would also start to level out the asymmetry between public body reporting and private body reporting in the matter of publicly funded transactions. At the moment, private company overheads for delivering subcontracted public services are less than public body overheads for delivering the same services in the matter of, for example, transparency disclosures, placing the public body at a disadvantage compared to the private body when it comes to transparency disclosures. (Note that things may be changing, at least in FOI stakes… See for example the latter part of Some Notes on Extending FOI.)
One might almost think the government was promoting transparency of public services gleeful in the expectation that as there privatisation agenda moves on a decreasing proportion of service providers will actually have to make public disclosures. Again, this asymmetry would make for unfair comparisons between service providers based on publicly available data if only data from public body providers of public services, rather than private providers of tendered public services, had to be disclosed.
So the take home, which has got diluted somewhat, is the proposal that the joint notions of fan in and fan out, when it comes to payment/receipts data, may be useful when it comes to helping us think about out how easy it is to concentrate data/information about payments to, or from, a particular body, and how policy can be defined to shine light where it needs shining.
Just like the way VLEs locked down what those who wanted to try to stuff out could do with educational websites, usually on the grounds of “security”, so a chunk of lightweight functionality with possible educational value that I was about to start to exploring inside IPython notebooks has been locked out by the new IPython notebook security policy:
Affected use cases
Some use cases that work in IPython 1.0 will become less convenient in 2.0 as a result of the security changes. We do our best to minimize these annoyance, but security is always at odds with convenience.
Here’s what I’ve been exploring – using a simple button:
to reveal an answer:
It’s a 101 interaction style in “e-learning” (do we still call it that?!) and one that I was hoping to explore more given the interactive richness of the IPython notebook environment.
and then a quick call from a button onclick event handler to reveal the answer block:
<input type="button" value="Answer" onclick="showHide('ans2')"> <div id="ans2" style="display:none">I can see several ways of generating common identifiers: <ul><li>using the **gss** code from the area data, I could generate identifiers of the form `http://http://statistics.data.gov.uk/id/statistical-geography/GSS`</li> <li>from the housing start data, I could split the *Reference Area* on space characters and then extract the GSS code from the first item in the split list</li> <li>The *districtname* in the area data looks like it make have "issues" with spacing in area names. If we remove spaces and turn everything to lower case in the area data *districtname* and the *Reference Area* in the housing data, we *may* be able create matching keys. But it could be a risky strategy...</li> </ul></div>
This won’t work anymore – and I don’t have the time to learn whether custom CSS can do this, and if so, how.
I don’t really want to have to go back to the approach I tried before I demoed the button triggered reveal example to myself…
That is, putting answers into a python library and then using code to pull the text answer in…
Note also the use of colour in the cells – this is something else I wanted to try to explore, the use of styling to prompt interactions; in the case of IPython notebooks, I quite like the idea of students taking ownership of the notebooks and adding content to it, whether by adding commentary text to cells we have written in, adding their own comment cells (perhaps using a different style – so a different cell type?), amending code stubs we have written, adding in their own code, perhaps as code complements to comment prompts we have provided, etc etc.
The quick hack, try and see option that immediately came to mind to support these sorts of interaction seems to have been locked out (or maybe not – rather than spending half an hour on a quick hack I’ll have to spend have an hour reading docs…). This is exactly the sort of thing that cuts down on our ability to mix ideas and solutions picked up from wherever, and just try them out quickly; and whilst I can see the rationale, it’s just another of those things to add to the when the web was more open pile. (I was going to spend half an hour blogging a post to let other members of the course team I’m on know how to add revealed answers to their notebooks, but as I’ve just spent 18 hours trying to build a VM box that supports python3 and the latest IPythion notebook, I’m a bit fed up at the thought of having to stick with the earlier version py’n’notebook VM I built because it’s easier for us to experiment with…)
I have to admit that some of the new notebook features look like they could be interesting from a teaching point of view in certain subject areas – the ability to publish interactive widgets where the controls talk to parameters accessed via the notebook code cells, but that wasn’t on my to do list for the next week…
What I was planning to do was explore what we’d need to do to get elements of the notebook behaving like elements in OU course materials, under the assumption that our online materials have designs that go hand in hand with good pedagogy. (This is a post in part about OU stuff, so necessarily it contains the p-word.)
Something else on the to do list was to explore how to tweak the branding of the notebook, for example to add in an OU logo or (for my other day per week), a School of Data logo. (I need to check the code openness status of IPython notebooks… How bad form would it be to remove the IPy logo for example? And where should a corporate log go? In the toolbar, or at the top of the content part of the notebook? If you just contribute content, I guess the latter; if you add notebook functionality, maybe the topbar is okay?)
There are a few examples of styling notebooks out there, but I wonder – will those recipes still work?
Ho hum – this post probably comes across as negative about IPython notebooks, but it shouldn’t because they’re a wonderful environment (for example, Doodling With IPython Notebooks for Education and Time to Drop Calculators in Favour of Notebook Programming?). I’m just a bit fed up that after a couple of days graft I don’t get to have half and hour’s fun messing around with look and feel. Instead, I need to hit the docs to find out what’s possible and what isn’t because the notebooks are no longer an open environment as they were… Bah..:-(
A couple of days ago, I got a message from @fantasticlfe asking if I’d done any tinkerings around what turned out to be “narrative charts”. I kept misapprehending what he was after (something to do with continuity?!;-), so here’s a summary of various graphical devices for looking at narrative texts that we passed back and forth, along with some we didn’t..
— Michael Smethurst (@fantasticlife) April 3, 2014
A Sankey diagram typically uses variable thickness lines to show flow between different elements in a system. (For this reason it’s often used to show energy flows throuygh a system, though it can also be used to good effect to show money flows.) The chart Michael linked to comes from xkcd:
In this chart, we have time along the horizontal x-axis. The y-axis is ambiguous (some sort of nominal ordering?) and the line thickness appears to represent army size.
To a certain extent, this diagram is reminiscent of Minard’s famous chart…
(See also What Makes a Minard? for some contemporary Minard diagrams. Is code available, I wonder?)
However, in the case of Minard’s chart (which I personally don’t like at all!), the x-y and co-ordinates represent map co-ordinates – the thick lines aren’t thick lines in a line chart (which a glanced “up and to the right” view might make you assume), they’re flow lines across a map.
I got distracted for a while by the Sankey aspect, and dug around my own bits of code. For example, Generating Sankey Diagrams from rCharts, an rCharts wrapper for the d3.js Sankey diagram. Michael was particularly interested in being able to group lines vertically (though I wasn’t sure what the y-axis would actually correspond to: some loose function of “location”, maybe as a categorical variable? Time was definitely to be on the horizontal x-axis); a posting on Stack Overflow (d3 sankey charts – manually position node along x axis) seemed likely to be able to help with that.
I then started going off on one…
Would a variant of nltk style lexical dispersion plots help, using characters rather than word categories? That would show when a character was in scene, but not much else?
How about sentence drawing, in which we show “turns” taken by different speakers?
This shows something, but again, not relevant…
Nor are Kurt Vonnegut’s shapes-of-stories diagrams that plot some sort of emotional state on y and time on x:
Hmmm… Michael wanted to be able to look at scenes on x and presumably some function of location on y. Hmm… why? And how might we actually order those axes? Scenes occur in order in a film or play, but scene is a ranked, ordinal value. That said, scenes also have duration in terms of screentime, which may or may not be the same as the “interval” that the scene portrays in terms of the world it represents (this must have a name? eg a 20 second screen time scene shows a plane flying and this represents x hours in the story). The scene may also have a ‘calendar time’ associated with it in the story – so where you have a flashback scene this corresponds to a previous calendar time in the represented world. Did Michael want any of these dimensions capturing?
And then there’s location… how should these be represented? Locations are a distance apart and, perhaps more importantly from a continuity point of view, a travel time apart; as well as maybe a timezone difference apart. Did that need capturing in any way? Ordering axes for this could be quite hard if we wanted close things in space (distance? travel time?) to be close together on a single axis (A is 10 minutes from B and C, B is ten minutes from C: how do you show that intransitive relation on a single dimension? [Maybe relevant? Storygraph: Extracting patterns from spatio-temporal data, A Shrestha et al., Advances in Visual Computing.] Hmm… If we can capture distance between locations, and some sensible notion of time relating to scenes, could we maybe use line thickness to show that a person has lots of time to move between one (time, location) and another, as compared to scenetime? Do filmwriters have tools to support this? Do the police…?! Is the Mythology Engine relevant?
How about thinking about it as a graph? I’ve used Gephi before as a foil for getting me to think about ordered series as connected events in a graph – for example, Visualising F1 Timing Sheet Data. If we encode scene number as the x-coordinate and location number as the y-coordinate, with each graph line being the connected series of scenes a particular individual is in, then we can simply use a line chart to connect “individual lines” to different scene and location numbers. We’d also have a couple of extra dimensions to play with – node size and node colour, at each location. We’d also have the opportunity to play with edge (that is, line) colour and edge thickness?
Maybe I need to try to do some demos? But no time for that right now…
How about trying to find some? Here are some discovered via @jamesjefferies:
Here’s a view of connected (by travel between) locations in Game of Thrones:
There’s also an animation of event in Game of Thrones, but I can’t quite figure out how to read it?!
Let’s go back to the sort of thing Michael was after – narrative charts..
@imhelenj found a related if cluttered interactive describing the evolution of web tech:
Then Michael shared a link to Comic Book Narrative Charts, a project for automatically generating xkcd style narrative charts:
Hovering over these charts, I noticed they were interactive d3.js charts. A quick View Source and the code for generating the chart dynamically from a characters file and a narrative file appeared to be there. Which I think is what Michael wanted all along…!
(By the by, the post also describes how the developers started thinking about fixing the vertical y-coordinate values. Here’s another example of someone thinking aloud around producing a narrative chart for the Holy Week story.)
Ho hum, an interesting set of detours nonetheless – and it got me thinking about the time-space complexity of a scene based tale that could keep be confused for weeks! :-)
PS this is quite interesting – visualising a process, via Tactical Tech Drawing By Numbers project:
PPS some more bits: @r4isstatic points to Some visualisations of stories and narratives, another summary post similar to this one. Also via Paul Rissen, and picking up on whether the police have any interesting actor/event/time/location diagramming techniques, Vispol – An Interactive Scenario Visualization.
Elsewhere, I find Storyline Visualizations, which includes a paper (Design Considerations for Optimizing Storyline Visualizations, Y Tanahashi, and K-L Ma, IEEE Trans on Visualisation and Computer Graphics, 18(12) 2012, pp2679-2688 and some python code.
PPPS Some more… A collection by Stewart McKie of techniques for visualising screenplays: Screenplay Visualization: Concepts and Practice. The posts I wrote on the Digital Worlds game design uncourse blog about narrative structure. Sort of via Scott Wilson, some crime analysis software from xanalys.com (Link Explorer – White Paper) which includes descriptions of an event chart, a transaction chart and an activity timeline:
Via the comments, this rather lovely animated discourse map:
The history of the Luddites fascinates me and it’s something I hope to properly immerse myself in one day…
The story is something I keep meaning to pitch as an OU/BBC co-pro, though there are already other BBC Radio 4 vehicles that would make a good home for the story:
- In Our Time comes to mind in the first instance, and would provide an opportunity to review the overtones of revolution and the clampdown on secret societies that were prevalent at the time and which presumably coloured the state response that turned Huddersfield into a garrison town.
- The Long View might take another tack, providing a look at the nature of innovation and the human response to it in a time of price hikes: economic factors had a role to play in fomenting civil unrest, as a hike in wheat prices made the daily bread unaffordable, particularly for those skilled workers whose trade was being replaced by mechanisation.
A recent BBC documentary featuring Huddersfield’s Simon Armitage* on The Pendle Witch Child used animation to nice effect as a way of dramatising that story from just over the border, and could perhaps also work as a way of retelling particular elements of the Luddite tale on television. Armitage’s probation officer background that perhaps stood him in good stead for appreciating the social context of the Pendle witch trials, and this could again be brought to bear when considering the 1812 rebellion: the York trials that resulted saw 17 men being hanged.
* who was born in Marsden. Perfick. It couldn’t be much more of a local story to him!
In the meantine, here’s a round-up stub for BBC content on the topic of the Luddites… Please let me know of anything I’m missing…
Regularly Scheduled FOI Requests as a None Too Subtle Regular OpenData Release Request? And Some Notes on Extending FOI
A piece of contextualisation in an interview piece with Green MP Caroline Lucas in Saturday’s Guardian (I didn’t do this because I thought it was fun) jumped out at me as I read it: More than 50 energy company employees have been seconded to the government free of charge, and dozens of them to the department of energy and climate change.
How about the gov.uk site?
(I don’t know what’s going in the fight between GDS and the data.gov.uk folk ito getting central gov #opendata info discoverable on the web, but the http://www.gov.uk domain seems to be winning out, not least because for departments who’re in that empire, that’s where any data that eventually linked to from data.gov.uk will actually be published?)
So – it seems folk have been FOIing this sort of information, but it doesn’t look as if this sort of information is being published according to a regular schedule under an #opendata transparency agenda.
Anyone would thing that the UK government wasn’t in favour of a little bit of light being shone on lobbying activity…
I guess I could put a request in to the ODUG (Open Data User Group) for this data to be released as open data, but my hunch is it’s not really the sort of thing they’re interested in (I get the feeling they’re not about open data for transparency, but (perhaps unfairly…?!) see them more as a lobbying group (ODUG membership) for companies who can afford to buy data but who would rather the tax payer pays for its collection and the government then gifts it to them).
More direct would be to find a way of automating FOI requests using something like WhatDoTheyKnow that would fire off an FOI request to each central government department once a month asking for that previous months’ list of secondments into and out of that department in the preceding month (or in the month one or two months preceding that month if they need a monthly salary payment cycle or two for that data to become available).
Of course, it does seem a bit unfair that each government department should have to cover the costs of these requests, but as it stands I can’t make an FOI request of companies that choose to engage in this sort of presumably public service.
Making private companies offering public services under contract subject to FOI does seem to be on the agenda again though, after being knocked back around this time last year?:
An extension to the scope of the FOI Act was proposed a few weeks ago in the Public Bill Committee debate of the morning of Tuesday 18 March 2014 on the Criminal Justice & Courts Bill, columns 186-193:
Dan Jarvis: I beg to move amendment 37, in clause 6, page 6, line 29, at end insert—
‘(1A) The Code of Practice must include a requirement that a person carrying out electronic monitoring who is not a public authority as defined by section 3 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 shall provide information in respect of the carrying out of electronic monitoring in the same manner as if they were such a public authority.’.
The Chair: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 38, in schedule 4, page 73, line 25, at end insert—
‘(1A) Where the Secretary of State enters into a contract with another person under paragraph 1(1), and that person is not a public authority for the purposes of section 3 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, that person shall be designated by the Secretary of State as a public authority for the purposes of that section in relation to that contract.’.
I remind the Committee that this group is about freedom of information provisions as they apply to aspects of the Bill. Members will have the opportunity to debate the detail of secure colleges later.
Dan Jarvis: I serve notice that, unless sufficient assurances are received, we intend to put the amendments to a vote. [ Interruption. ] Dramatic! I sensed for a moment that there was a higher authority raising a concern about these amendments, but I shall plough on regardless, confident in the knowledge that they are true and right.
Anyone who knows the story of Jajo the rabbit will understand what I am about to say. For those members of the Committee who do not know, Jajo was the pet rabbit successfully registered as a court translator and then booked in for shifts following the Ministry of
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Justice’s outsourcing of language service contracts. Jajo’s short-lived translation career says less about his talent and much more about the importance of ensuring that public contracts delivered by private providers are properly managed.
As was touched on, Ministers now have to manage another fall-out. Two private providers of electronic monitoring overcharged the taxpayer by millions of pounds for tagging offenders who had died or moved abroad, or who were already back in prison. That underlines the case for the amendments.
Both amendments would seek to bring non-public providers of public services contracted out under the Bill within the scope of the Freedom of Information Act. Amendment 37 relates to clause 6 and the code of practice that would be issued by the Secretary of State on the processing of data related to electronic monitoring. It would require anyone carrying out monitoring related to the clauses to comply with FOI requests in the same way as public bodies do. Amendment 38 relates to schedule 4 and the arrangements for contracting out secure colleges, which are detailed in part 2. It would require anyone contracted to provide a secure college to comply with freedom of information in the same way. Both our proposals are worthy of consideration by the Committee.
We all know that the landscape of how public services are delivered is changing. The Government spend £187 billion on goods and services with third parties each year, about half of which is estimated to be on contracting out services. About half of all spending on public services now ends up in private providers’ hands and more and more private providers are bidding to take on the responsibility and financial rewards that come with large-scale public contracts. As outsourcing is stepped up, more and more information about public services and public money is being pulled out of the public domain. That presents a particular challenge that we must tackle.
As the Information Commissioner told the Justice Committee last year,
“if more and more services are delivered by alternative providers who are not public authorities, how do we get accountability?”
The rewards that third parties stand to gain need to go hand in hand with the duties of transparency and information sharing. The public should be able to ask about how, and how well, the service they are paying for is being run.
The Freedom of Information Act does provide for supply-chain companies to be considered to be holding information on behalf of a public authority. In practice, however, contracted providers in the justice sector are not subject to anywhere near the same transparency requirements as publicly-run services. Private prisons, for example, are not subject to FOI in the same way as public prisons and the experience of G4S, Serco and others will have influenced many other companies not to be as forthcoming as they might have been. That is why we need to build freedom of information into the contracts that the Government make with third parties.
The Committee will be aware that such an approach was recommended by the Public Accounts Committee in its excellent report published last week. It made the
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point that many Departments are not providing information on how those contracts work on the grounds of commercial confidentiality. The public will not accept that excuse for much longer.
Let me conclude my remarks by offering the Committee a final quote. Someone once said:
“Information is power. It lets people hold the powerful to account”
and it should be used by them to hold their
“public services to account”.
I agree with the Prime Minister. Two years ago, he spoke about
“the power of transparency”
“why we need more of it.”
He also spoke of leading
“the most transparent Government ever.”
Labour has pledged that the next Labour Government will deal with the issue by bringing companies providing public contracts into the scope of FOI legislation.
Freedom of information can be uncomfortable. It can shed light on difficult issues and be problematic for Government Ministers, but that is the point. The Committee has the opportunity today to improve the Bill and to get a head start.
Dr Huppert: I will not detain the Committee. I share the concern about the lack of FOI for private organisations providing public services. My colleagues and I have expressed concerns about that for many years, and the previous Government were not very good at accepting that. It is good news that the Labour party may undo that error.
Mr Slaughter: Can the hon. Gentleman say what steps he and the coalition have taken to extend FOI in the past four years?
Dr Huppert: Not as many as I would like, but we have seen progress in some areas; we did not see any at all when the hon. Gentleman was a Minister. I hope we will see the correct drive. I share the concern that we need transparency when public services are delivered by private companies. They must not be shielded. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say, because he has commented on such issues before.
It is important that the matter should be dealt with on a global scale. I think the shadow Minister would agree that the case is broader. I hope to hear from the Minister that there will be more work to look at how the issue can be addressed more generally, rather than just in a specific case. That would probably require amendment of the Freedom of Information Act. That is probably the best way to resolve the issue, rather than tacking it on to this area, but I absolutely share the concerns. I hope we can see more transparency, both from the Government—we are seeing that—and from the private sector as it performs public functions.
Yasmin Qureshi: The Justice Committee, of which I am a member, looked into the Freedom of Information Act and how it has been operating since it was passed many years ago. We spoke to different groups of people,
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representatives of councils and local authorities, the Information Commissioner and pressure groups. Generally, the view was that the Freedom of Information Act has been a force for good. The thing that people mentioned time and again was the fact that it applies only to public authorities and has a narrow remit in private companies. A lot of concern was expressed about that.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central said, just under £200 billion is being spent by the Government for private companies to carry out public work. The number of outsourcings could increase, especially in the criminal justice system. In the probation service there will be contracting out and privatisation, as well as changes in the criminal justice system in relation to legal aid and suchlike. We have concerns about the criminal justice system and the number of companies that will be carrying out work that the state normally does. It is an important issue.
Will the Minister give us an undertaking for whenever Government money is given to carry out work on behalf of the Government? Local authorities and Government Departments have to provide information, and it should be the same for private companies. At the moment, as the shadow Minister mentioned, the agencies providing some of the public work give some information, but it is not enough.
It is often hard to get information from private companies. It is important for the country that we know where public money is being spent and how private companies respond to such things. We can have party political banter, but freedom of information was introduced many years ago and has been working well. Freedom of information needs to be extended in light of the new circumstances. I ask for a clear commitment from the Government that they will encapsulate that in the Bill. They now have that opportunity; the Labour party has said that, if it was in government, it would certainly do so. The lacunae and the gaps would be addressed by the amendment, which would make it clear exactly how the regime applies. [Interruption.]
The Chair: I apologise for the background noise. We are looking into the cause.
Jeremy Wright: Thank you, Mr Crausby. I hope Jajo the rabbit is not responsible.
As the hon. Member for Barnsley Central said, amendment 37 seeks to introduce a requirement as to the contents of the code of practice that the Secretary of State will issue under proposed new section 62B of the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000, which is to be introduced through clause 6. The Secretary of State would have to include provisions in the code of practice requiring providers of outsourced electronic monitoring services to make information available in the same manner as if they were subject to the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act. The aim of the amendment seems essentially to extend the Act to providers of electronic monitoring not already subject to its provisions.
Amendment 38 has the same basic intention in that it seeks to extend the Freedom of Information Act to providers of secure colleges that have entered a contract with the Secretary of State to do so under schedule 4. The approach differs, however, because amendment 38
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would extend the Act directly, whereas amendment 37 seeks to extend its obligations through code of practice guidance.
In other words, both amendments would require private providers not currently subject to the Freedom of Information Act to make information available both in response to FOI requests and proactively through publication schemes. Section 5 of the Act already provides a power to extend the Act’s provisions to contractors providing public services. For reasons I will try to outline, the Government do not currently propose to adopt that approach and are adopting an alternative method to ensure transparency. I am aware, however, of the long-standing and serious concerns raised on the position under the Act of private providers of public services. It might help the hon. Member for Hammersmith to know that the Government are committed to, and have taken steps to extend, the Act. More than 100 additional organisations have been included since 2010, and we are considering other ways in which its scope may be widened.
The issue of outsourced public services was considered in some detail during post-legislative scrutiny of the Freedom of Information Act by the Select Committee on Justice in 2012. I do not know whether the hon. Member for Bolton South East was a member of the Committee of that time, but the Committee rightly issued a reminder that
“the right to access information is crucial to ensuring accountability and transparency for the spending of taxpayers’ money”.
The Committee recommended the use of contractual provisions, rather than the formal extension of the Act, to ensure that transparency and accountability are maintained. In particular, the Committee said:
“We believe that contracts provide a more practical basis for applying…outsourced services than partial designation of commercial companies under section 5 of the Act”.
The Committee also feels that
“the use of contractual terms to protect the right to access information is currently working relatively well.”
The Government’s approach is consistent with that recommended by the Justice Committee.
In addition to information being made available proactively, the Government are taking steps to issue a revised code of practice under section 45 of the Freedom of Information Act to promote transparency on outsourced public services in response to FOI requests. The code of practice will be issued later this year and will promote and encourage the use and enforcement of contractual obligations to ensure that private bodies not subject to the Act provide appropriate assistance where information about outsourced public services is requested from bodies that are subject to the Act.
The Government recognise that only a small amount of information held by private providers is currently often formally subject to the Act. Our code of practice will encourage public authorities to go further, to interpret their freedom of information obligation broadly and to release more information on a voluntary basis, where it would be in the public interest to do so. In the event of non-compliance, it will also be possible for the Information Commissioner to issue and publish a practice recommendation setting out steps that, in his view, the public authority should take to promote conformity with the guidance.
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Mr Slaughter: I seem to remember taking part in the Westminster Hall debate arising out of the Justice Committee’s deliberation and I do not think that it was very happy with the approach that the Government are taking, particularly where they are seeking to restrict freedom of information further. Does the hon. Gentleman accept on the basis of what he has just said that this will not be a level playing field and that the same requirements that apply to public bodies will not apply to private organisations undertaking an effectively identical role? Does he accept that, whatever the merits of his scheme, it does not to far enough and does not address the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central?
Jeremy Wright: The hon. Gentleman will recognise that the organisations we are talking about extending the provisions of the Act to cover vary hugely in size and level of resources. The concern is to draw the appropriate balance between giving correct access to information and not imposing intolerable burdens on organisations, particularly smaller ones. That is the balance that has to be struck. We are looking at ways in which we can continue to make public authorities responsible for supplying information but ensure that it comes from the place where it originated, which may be those other organisations.
Mr Slaughter: That is a different argument and one that is often tried. It was tried in relation to universities and to the smaller district councils much beloved of the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst. There are already limitations within the Act. There are safeguards for organisations in terms of the amount of time and cost. Why are they not sufficient?
Jeremy Wright: As I said, there is a balance to be struck. We attempt to strike that balance correctly with our proposals. If I can explain what we want to do a little more fully, perhaps the hon. Gentleman will be reassured—although frankly I doubt it. There is an opportunity for us to look at the issue in a sensible way with the code of practice. Applying our forthcoming code of practice guidance across the public sector will ensure that transparency and response to freedom of information requests will be maintained in a consistent way. This is preferable—I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge—to the more piecemeal approach promoted by amendments 37 and 38.
The success of our own code of practice will be monitored by the Ministry of Justice and the Information Commissioner. We were clear in our response to post-legislative scrutiny of the Freedom of Information Act that, should this approach yield insufficient dividends, we will consider what other steps are necessary. In summary, we are committed to ensuring transparency in relation to all outsourced public services, including electronic monitoring and secure colleges. We are taking steps to ensure that through the code of practice to be issued later this year. On that basis, I invite the hon. Gentleman to withdraw his amendment.
Yasmin Qureshi: The Minister referred to the Select Committee on Justice and its recommendations. As you know, without going into the detail of that discussion, Select Committee recommendations sometimes tend to
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be compromises. At the time, three issues were in the mind of the Select Committee. First, it did not realise that a legislative opportunity would come so soon in which to put the measure in a more codified way with a clearer legal obligation. Secondly, there was quite a lot of discussion about private companies.
The Select Committee accepted that the Freedom of Information Act should not apply to purely private companies carrying out purely private work; it was not really arguing against that. However, here we have an opportunity to codify once and for all in legislation the provision that the FOIA should apply whenever public money is paid to a private company to carry out work. That would be a fairly straightforward provision. I do not see why we need to go down the complicated route of using a code of practice, putting in a specific provision in a new contract each time something happens. Why can we not just have a general provision that applies to every situation?
Jeremy Wright: I was a member of the Justice Committee before the hon. Lady was, so I understand her point that recommendations of the Select Committee are a matter of discussion and compromise. However, they are made on a cross-party basis, and paid all the more attention to for that reason. I quoted directly from the Select Committee’s conclusions in what I said earlier.
On the hon. Lady’s other point, this may be an earlier legislative opportunity than the Select Committee anticipated, but of course, it is only an opportunity in relation to specific policies. Again, I rather agree with the point made earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge: there is an argument for addressing the issue, not on a piecemeal basis, but more comprehensively.
The hon. Lady’s final point is that the approach that we have set out—using a code of practice—is inadequate and that a statutory approach should be introduced by amending primary legislation. An initial approach of using a code of practice is a sensible one. She will recognise that amendment 37, tabled by the hon. Member for Barnsley Central, deals with a requirement in a code of practice, not primary legislation. Amendment 38 is different, but in relation to electronic monitoring, on which a number of concerns have been expressed, the hon. Gentleman’s chosen vehicle is a code of practice. The code of practice approach appears to be welcomed by both sides of the Committee.
Dan Jarvis: I have listened carefully to the Minister’s response. Clearly, we will want to look carefully at the detail of what he has said about a code of practice.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South-East that the Committee has an opportunity this morning to make progress on redefining the freedom of information. I have heard the Minister’s response to that point, but the reality is that the move would be popular with the public.
There is no doubt that the landscape in which public services are delivered is changing. The Opposition have pledged to reform freedom of information if we are in government from 2015. I am mindful of the Prime Minister’s comments, which I quoted earlier. He said:
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“Information is power. It lets people hold the powerful to account”,
and it should be used by them to hold their public services to account.
Mike Kane: Does my hon. Friend agree that, as the contracting out of public services expands, the public’s right to information shrinks?
Dan Jarvis: I agree absolutely. There is a degree of inevitability that we will see change in the area. The debate is about how we do it, and it is important that we have that debate. We have tabled the amendments partly so that we can take the opportunity to debate such issues.
Mr Slaughter: There is another point here, which is that the Ministry of Justice is particularly vulnerable on the issue. We have had the privatisation of the probation service and the scandals regarding tagging. We will come to later in the Bill to proposals about the externalisation of the collection of fines and other matters. First, that is going on wholesale in the Department, and secondly, it is defective in many aspects. It is particularly relevant that the Minister should accept that the proposals in the Bill are not sufficient.
Dan Jarvis: My hon. Friend is right. In the context of the delivery of public services within the Ministry of Justice remit, this is a particularly relevant, timely and important issue. It has been incredibly useful to have the opportunity to debate it owing to the tabling of the amendments.
I mentioned that I was mindful of the Prime Minister’s comments, and I am mindful of the fact that the Justice Secretary has also indicated a desire to reform freedom of information. Given that there is a general acknowledgment that the status quo is not acceptable and despite what the Minister has said in response to our amendment, I will press it to a vote.
The amendment was defeated.
An hour or so later, the government took this line:
Freedom of Information Act
23. Lindsay Roy (Glenrothes) (Lab): What plans he has to bring forward legislative proposals to expand the scope of the Freedom of Information Act 2000.
The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Simon Hughes): There has been good progress in extending the implementation of the Freedom of Information Act because the coalition Government pledged to extend its scope to provide greater transparency. We extended it in 2010 to academies, in 2011 to the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Financial Ombudsman Service and the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, and last year to 100 companies wholly owned by more than one public authority. The next item on the agenda is to do with Network Rail, and we are awaiting a view from the Department for Transport as to whether it thinks it would be appropriate for that to be implemented this year.
Lindsay Roy: What benefits have accrued to the Government and citizens from the implementation of the Act, and when does the Minister plan to extend its scope further?
Simon Hughes: We intend to extend it further as soon as is practical. One specific issue that I hope will be of interest to the hon. Gentleman—as it is to colleagues of his, including those who have come to see me about it—is that we intend to publish a revised code of practice to make sure that private companies that carry out public functions have freedom of information requirements in their contracts and go further than that. We hope that that will be in place by the end of this year.
Mr Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): There is one area where the Minister should perhaps look at narrowing the scope of the Act, because my understanding is that requests can be made by anybody anywhere on the face of the earth; they do not have to be British citizens. It is not the role of the British Government to be a taxpayer-funded research service for anyone on the globe. May I suggest that he narrow the scope to those for whom the Government work—citizens of our country?
Simon Hughes: I well understand my hon. Friend’s point. There will be two consultations this year: first, on precisely such issues about the scope of the current legislation to make sure that it is not abused while we retain freedom of information as a principle of Government; and secondly, on extending it to other areas where we have not gone so far.
Dr Huppert:I read out the quote from someone who has made the position clear when it comes to private companies carrying out public functions. Indeed, the code of practice has exactly the wording used in amendment 11, which the hon. Gentleman supported when we debated it on Tuesday. I do not want to take up too much of the Chairman’s kindness to discuss an issue that was rejected at that point, but it is happening as we wanted.
The matter was also touched upon a couple of days later in a Public Bill Committee on the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill (Official Report, Thursday 20 March 2014, 257-259) where accountability around public contracts delivered by private provides was being discussed:
Mr Slaughter: Absolutely not. I hope that the hon. Gentleman has read the article about Jago the rabbit that my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) and I wrote for The Independent yesterday [It’s time we extended Freedom of Information to public services run by private companies – just ask Jago the Rabbit], which dealt with what should be done, which is to bring these companies within the ambit of FOI, and what the Minister of State did—with his usual skill, shall we say?—at Justice questions on Tuesday. He implied that that was what was going to happen, whereas in fact he was doing nothing more than putting round the line that the Cabinet Office has already indicated.
If I am wrong about that, I will give way in a moment and the hon. Gentleman can come back to me, but my understanding is that the Government—both parts of it, as long as they are just about coalescing—are of the view that the contracts that are drawn up should include this notional transparency. That is to say that they will encourage public authorities to encourage private companies to put clauses into contracts that will expose as much as possible, within the realms of commercial confidentiality. So the contracts will be open, with publication on websites and so forth of as much information about the contract as the two parties think fit. What we will not have is a duty on those private companies—in so far as they are carrying out public functions—to comply with the terms of the Freedom of Information Act, as would be the case in the public sector.
I accept that they are two sides of the same coin. On the one hand, of course it is a good idea that the information is made available voluntarily, but if it is not—either because the company does not choose to do so or because the contract is not drafted sufficiently well to ensure that it must—the citizen must have the right, through FOI, to require that information to be made available. As far as I am concerned, that is not what was said on Tuesday. I know that there is consultation going on, but if it is the intention of the Government—at least the Liberal Democrat part of the Government—to follow the line taken by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan), the shadow Lord Chancellor, which he has repeated often in recent months, and require all those private companies performing public functions to come within the requirements of the Freedom of the Information Act, I would be pleased if the hon. Gentleman said so now.
Mr Slaughter:I take from that comment that even the hon. Gentleman does not understand what the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark, says, so opaque is it. If nobody, including the Minister, is going to answer my question, the answer will no doubt come out in the wash on a later occasion. However, it seems to me that that is not what is being promised. If it were, the Minister would be jumping up and claiming credit for it, but he is not. Therefore, I assume that that is not the case.
The significance of that is that those four companies about which I have just raised doubts—G4S, Serco, Capita, and we can safely add Atos—all told the Public Accounts Committee that they were prepared to accept the measures that the Committee proposed. It therefore appears that the main barrier to greater transparency lies within Government.
That is where we are. Even the companies that want to put themselves and the interests of their shareholders first are more keen on transparency and on answering the legitimate questions that are being asked by everyone— from ourselves to the chief inspector of prisons—than this Government are.
I say that because if we are to take this further leap down that path, it is only right that the Government do not just challenge, as the Minister has said, acknowledged frauds, but look at the entire performance behaviour, as well as the number of available companies that could step into the breach and deal with these matters.
What we must conclude from the conjunction of clauses 17 and 18 is that, first, the Government are prepared to take this leap in the dark, in terms of the reconfiguration of the youth estate and, secondly, that they are prepared to leave that entirely in the hands of the people who failed so many times in so many contracts, not least in running parts of the adult prison service.
For more on some of the specifics, see the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee report on “Contracting out public services to the private sector”, which for example recommended “that the Cabinet Office should explore how the FOI regime could be extended to cover contracts with private providers, including the scope for an FOI provision to be included in standard contract terms; that neither the Cabinet Office nor departments should routinely use commercial confidentiality as a reason for withholding information about contracts with private providers; [and that] The Cabinet Office should set out a plan for departments to publish routinely standard information on their contracts with private providers”.
There’s also a couple of related private members bills floating around at the moment – Grahame Morris’ empty Freedom of Information (Private Healthcare Companies) Bill 2013-14 “to amend the Freedom of Information Act 2000 to apply to private healthcare companies”, and Caroline Lucas’ Public Services (Ownership and User Involvement) Bill 2013-14 “to put in place mechanisms to increase the accountability, transparency and public control of public services, including those operated by private companies”. The latter >a href=”http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/bills/cbill/2013-2014/0160/cbill_2013-20140160_en_2.htm#l1g5″>proposes:
(1) Where a relevant authority starts the process of procurement for a public services contract, it must make available to the public details of all bids received prior to the conclusion of the procurement exercise.
(2) Where a relevant authority enters into a public services contract, details of that contract shall be made available to the public within 28 days of the procurement decision.
6 Freedom of information
(1) The Secretary of State must designate as a public authority, pursuant to section 5(1)(b) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, companies or other bodies which enter into a public services contract.
(2) “Public services contract” has the meaning contained within section 8 of this Act.
(3) The Secretary of State shall maintain a list of companies designated under section 6(1) of this Act.
(4) Requests under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 in respect of such companies or bodies can only be made in respect of information relevant to the provision of a public services contract.
(5) The Secretary of State must designate as a public authority, pursuant to section 5(1)(b) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, any utility company subject to regulation by regulatory authorities as defined in section 8.
Finally, on the accountability and transparency thing, there’s a consultation on at the moment regrading “smaller authorities with an annual turnover not exceeding £25,000, including parish councils, [who] will be exempt from routine external audit” but instead will be subject to a transparency code (Draft transparency code for parish councils – consultation).
Related: Spending & Receipts Transparency as a Consequence of Accepting Public Money? If you accept public money for contracts that would otherwise be provided by a public service you should be subject to the same levels of FOI and transparency reporting. Why should public services have to factor this in to their bids for running a service when private companies don’t?
From 1973, Charles Bachman in his acceptance lecture for that year’s Turing Award (The Programmer as Navigator) commenting on challenges in shifting the world view of the time about database design:
The publication policies of the technical literature are also a problem. The ACM SIGBDP and SIGFIDET publications are the best available, and membership in these groups should grow. The refereeing rules and practices of Communications of the ACM result in delays of one year to 18 months between submittal and publication. Add to that the time for the author to prepare his ideas for publication and you have at least a two-year delay between the detection of significant results and their earliest possible publication.
1973. We’re now in 2014. Do, as they say, the math…