In October of 2010, Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government announced – as part of the government’s drive to boost localism and reduce bureacracy – his intention to reduce the amount and complexity of data which local authorities are required to provide to central government for performance monitoring purposes. In particular, he announced that the “National Indicator Set” was to be replaced with a single comprehensive list of all the data returns central government expects local authorities to provide. Apparently, these requirements involve thousands of datasets and the employment of high numbers of full-time staff.
How has this drive progressed? Not very well, according to the Local Government Association.
The LGA welcomed Mr Pickles’ announcement and the Department’s consultation on its ‘Reducing Data Burdens’ Code of Practice. It announced yesterday, however, that it is “disappointed at the scale of the reductions proposed so far and remain unconvinced about the extent of the Government’s ambition to minimise the reporting burdens it imposes on councils”. It provides this example: for the 45 data items or collections that have been stopped, another 18 new ones have been introduced.
It calls for “an immediate and significant reduction in the data Government requires of local government”. See the details of the LGA’s position here.
The Coalition’s Programme for Government contains a great deal that is of interest to information lawyers: see here. But when and how will any of this be given legislative effect?
The Queen’s Speech was delivered on 25th May 2010. The website of the Prime Minister’s office gives a list of the proposed Bills , with further information about each one. Three of the proposed Bills have potential implications for information law.
(i) The Public Bodies (Reform) Bill will enhance the transparency and accountability of quangos: though it is not clear as yet whether enhanced information access rights will play a role in this.
(ii) The Decentralisation and Localism Bill will (among other matters) require public bodies to publish online the job titles of every member of staff and the salaries and expenses of senior officials.
(iii) The Freedom (Great Repeal) Bill is intended to cover a wide range of subjects, to be announced in due course: it may include an extension to the scope of FOIA, and also various provisions in relation privacy (e.g. relating to CCTV cameras, and the DNA database).
Of these Bills, it is the third that is likely to be much the most significant.
Last week I posted on a judicial review claim which was then being heard in the High Court on the question of access to property search information held by local authorities. Judgment was handed down in the case last Friday – OneSearch Direct v City of York Council  EWHC 590 (Admin). The case involved an attempt by a property search company (OneSearch) to gain direct access to unrefined property records held by a local authority. The advantage to OneSearch of gaining such direct access is that it would not have to pay to receive the relevant property search information through what is commonly known as the ‘CON29R’ system. The CON29R system typically entails local authorities providing answers to property search enquiries (on a form known as the CON29R form) and then charging for the provision of that information under the Local Authorities (England) (Charges for Property Searches) Regulations 2008. When OneSearch’s request for direct access to the records was refused by the council, the company brought a claim for judicial review against the council. In that claim, which was treated as a test case, OneSearch argued that denying access to the unrefined records was unlawful having regard to the statutory purpose and intention underlying the relevant local authority legislative scheme. Hickenbottom J rejected OneSearch’s claim. He held that it was entirely lawful and in accordance with the statutory scheme for the council to opt to provide the relevant property search information through the CON29R system. This judgment will come as a blow to those property search companies who see the CON29R system as a costly system which unjustly allows local authorities to exploit their monopolistic position as controllers of property search records. Notably, the rights of access available under the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 were not relied upon by OneSearch in this case – cf my recent post on the case of East Riding Council v ICO & York Place. 11KBW’s Jason Coppel acted on behalf of the council.
The use of CCTV cameras by local authorities has long been a controversial subject. Civil liberties groups regard the proliferation of such cameras as an unjustified infringement of the right to privacy. Others regard the use of such cameras as a necessary and, hence, justified evil in the fight against crime and anti-social behaviour. However, recent guidelines issued by the Department for Transport (DfT) has raised altogether different questions about the legality of local authority CCTV systems. In particular, DfT published guidelines last week confirming that, with effect from 1 April 2009, Westminster council’s mobile CCTV cameras would be rendered unlawful because they lack a sufficient number of pixels to meet the new quality requirements imposed under the Traffic Management Act 2004 (TMA). The DfT has confirmed that the cameras must be switched off by midnight on 31 March in order to avoid falling foul of new TMA provisions, which come into force on 1 April. This is an untimely development for those law enforcement agencies which were hoping to use the mobile cameras as part of the security strategy to manage the G20 summit. It is understood that Westminster Council has now written to the Transport Secretary, Geoff Hoon, as a matter of urgency requesting a special dispensation so that the cameras will not have to go dark on the eve of the summit.