Research on Open Data and Transparency

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Black Spider Blues pt2: The Impact of the Release of Charles’ Letters

Charles letter

Last week saw the publication under the Freedom of Information Act, after a 10 year legal battle, of Prince Charles’ ‘Black Spider memos’, a series of letters to Ministers and the then Prime Minister between 2004 and 2005. These letters gave us a snapshot of Charles’ views and attempts to raise awareness on many different topics, from architecture to Iraq and from empty hospitals to badgers.

After such a long battle to keep them secret, many believed the letters would contain some shock revelation or damaging views. However, although high profile FOI disclosures tantalise us with possible ‘smoking guns’, the effects of these information ‘revelations’ can be muted and shaped by pre-existing attitudes. For Charles, the letters actually fit with what we know his concerns are. Any fallout is cushioned by the fact the Monarchy itself is popular-and Charles’ own popularity is increasing.

In the hours and days after, those on either side of the Monarchy debate read into them what they wished. Republic said that the letters were a ‘direct breach of the constitutional boundaries on which our current system of politics relies’. By contrast, Jacob Rees Mogg pointed out how the memos showed Charles ‘doing his duty’ as heir to the throne in warning and offering advice. You can see this same pattern in other ‘revelations’ such as the release of the ‘full’ cache of Jeb Bush’s emails from when he was governor (though there are rumours he had another account). In this sense, the releases just reinforced views-a bit like the MPs’ expenses scandal of 2009. To most, the expenses ‘revelation’ was more a ‘confirmation’ and few trusted MPs before and few did afterwards.

Clarence House and parts of the media have warned that the disclosure could mean there will be no more raising of issues by Charles (at least not by letter):

The publication of private letters can only inhibit his ability to express the concerns and suggestions which have been put to him in the course of his travels and meetings.

In Charles’ case this is very unlikely, if not impossible. Thanks to an amendment to the FOI Act done on the quiet in 2010 (by the Labour government-not the Coalition) the Monarch and heir to the throne are now fully exempt from it. The ‘Black Spider’ requests ‘got through’ because the appeal predated this change-now they can be absolutely refused. So Charles can write away safely. Unless someone leaks something, like, for example, Charles’ view of the Human Rights Act.

Nevertheless, the concern plays into two larger fears around FOI. One is that it inhibits decision-making and has a ‘chilling effect’ on records. This claim has become a cry against ‘too much’ openness. Tony Blair warned of it in his memoirs and ex-Cabinet Secretary Gus O’Donnell also raised it in the 2012 post-legislative scrutiny of FOI. Proving such an effect is very difficult. The evidence is rather flimsy- for Blair it is a little rich blaming sofa government on FOI and O’Donnell cited only two examples. However, one was hypothetical and one related to the 2010 coalition negotiations, something that has only happened a few times in a 100 years.

FOI can have a chilling effect at the margins but there are many reasons why records change-fear of leaks, resources or information technology. Our own research found that many officials were more concerned about the consequences of not having a record if a judge came looking. On a side note, Blair and Charles shared a little joke about evading FOI, which tells us a little about attitudes to the legislation at the top of government. FOI is a law (passed by Tony Blair)-would they joke about evading the Theft Act?

The second fear is that FOI is being ‘abused’. Blair called passing the Act one of his two biggest mistakes and some of the coverage adds to the sense, a further damaging myth, that the Act is being ‘industrially misused’ for political purposes. In fact, most requests go to local government and are below the radar, concerning the ‘micro-politics’ of allotments or holes in the road. There are some high profile mischievous and ‘frivolous’ requests. However, for every request making headlines about people being banned from a library for being too smelly there are many of vital importance including the UK’s involvement in extraordinary rendition, welfare reform and the Libor Banking scandal-and closer to home the existence of a Royal ‘pocket veto’ on legislation.

Like many new mechanisms of participation, FOI is an inherently ‘disruptive’ instrument. Like all parts of a democracy, it is messy and unpredictable and can occasionally go wrong. But in its messiness and unpredictability lies its power. In explaining why FOI matters, I shamelessly borrow Orwell’s definition of liberty ‘If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear’ (from his unpublished preface to Animal Farm).Transparency and FOI is then ‘the right to ask questions those in power don’t want asked and look for information they don’t want us to see’.


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To Block or Not To Block: Background on the FOI veto


Following the publication of the Black Spider Memos and discussion over amendments to the FOI veto, here’s a bit of background on FOI and the veto.

When Can and Does the Government Use It?

The revised FOI Veto guidance of 2009 sets out when government can use the section 53 veto:

The Government considers that the veto should only be used in exceptional circumstances and only following a collective decision of the Cabinet. This policy is in line with the commitment made by the previous administration during the passage of the Freedom of Information Bill that the veto power would only be used in exceptional circumstances, and on then following collective Cabinet agreement.

This includes the following situations

  • Release of the information would damage Cabinet Government; and/or
  • It would damage the constitutional doctrine of collective responsibility; and
  • The public interest in release, taking account as appropriate of information in the public domain, is outweighed by the public interest in good Cabinet government and/or the maintenance of collective responsibility.

The lobby briefing today hinted it could be extended to cover new areas-extending their ‘self-denying’ ordinance, as it were.

How often has it been used?

In fact, in the UK, use has been relatively slight and covered ‘exceptional’ circumstances above-mostly around sensitive areas-see my post here.

Country Use of the Executive Veto in first four years
Australia 48
New Zealand 14
Ireland 2
UK 1

See this CFOI briefing paper

However, as we said ‘While use has been relatively restrained by international standards, each use is seen as signalling lack of faith in the system ’ and probably attracts attention to an issue you want to hide. Those of a Machiavellian persuasion may see a pattern-use it a lot so it’s not noticed or don’t use it at all.

The government has been minded to change it for some time

In 2012 the government suggested it would revise how the veto could be used, potentially extending it beyond just collective responsibility (see page 19-20 of the response to the post-legislative scrutiny of FOI).

The veto policy also currently focuses directly on the protection of information which relates to the doctrine of collective responsibility in Cabinet. Although it explicitly does not preclude the use of the veto in the case of other information, the policy is not easily adaptable to apply outside that context given its focus. For example, the criteria to be used in deciding whether to apply the veto set out in the policy relate strongly to collective responsibility but less clearly to other information.

The Government is minded to review and, as appropriate, revise the policy on the use of the veto. As part of that review, we propose to consider how the veto policy can be adapted both in terms of the process involved in its use and to offer greater clarity and reassurance n its ability to offer appropriate protection in addition to that which it provides in the context of information relating to collective Cabinet responsibility.

The recent ruling that weakened the ‘absolute’ nature of the veto makes this more likely.

This may be an interesting test of the new Parliament…

The proposal to bring forward a cross party proposal to protect Royal correspondence may be an interesting test of consensus across the parties in the new Parliament. The changes made to the Royal family [passed by the Labour government not the Coalition though they cam einto force in 2011] in the Constitutional Reform Act went through largely [but not wholly] without protest. Will it be the same this time round? Would the Lib-Dems or new block of SNP MPs settle for a change or could they make political capital out of it?

FOI and the Monarchy

On a side note, FOI has also demolished the idea that the Monarchy is only a symbolic body-an FOI request also revealed they have their own veto. My apologies to my decade long classes of politics students who I smugly told that the Monarchy has no power.

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Which online tools can really help you decide how to vote?


The 2015 election has brought voters a plethora of helpful tools. Here’s how to use them. Away from the ground war in the streets and air war in the mainstream media, the 2015 election is, in many ways, an online affair. The parties are spending big on social media campaigns and even offering reward points to supporters for sharing content.

The election is also driving a whole new suite of online voting tools for voters.These new tools can help the electorate find out a great deal about an election, from basic information such as who is standing, to how your MP has voted and even the “power” of your vote. Here’s a selection of some of the top sites.

Who should I vote for?

Vote for Policies allows you to assess the policies of different parties “anonymously”. It offers you a list of policies in areas such as immigration, the economy or education, without telling you which party they belong to, and asks you to select which most applies to your views. It then tells you which party best reflects your answers.

A recent survey of the site found that 50% of users surveyed considered changing their vote after having used it – and a full 63% were surprised to discover which policy belonged to which party. And in the same vein, Who Gets My Vote offers a range of policies, one at a time, and asks if you agree or disagree with them.

If you’re looking for something with a little more local flavour, the crowdsourced database of 2015 candidates yournextmp offers a snapshot of everyone in your constituency who wants to be your MP and is running. It also contains links to their history in the area, Wikipedia mentions and their social media presence. It’s still under construction so keep checking.

Does my vote count?

Tools are also available to help you understand the local context of your vote too. The democratic dashboard tells you your local constituency results since 2005, to help you find out about how your party of choice has fared in the past before you cast your vote. It also includes information on the deprivation ranking of your local area and the amount being spent on campaigning there by different parties.

Perhaps most importantly, it also offers a voter power index, which explains how much your vote is worth. This tells me that my constituency is a fairly safe seat, so my vote has 0.29% (or a third) of the power of the one person one vote we are all supposed to have. This helps make the case for proportional representation, which is beginning to rumble again.

Are they worth my vote?

If you want to check up on how sitting MPs have performed during their time in Westminster, the famed TheyWorkforYou scrapes data on all sitting MPs. It can tell you how an MP has voted on issues that matter to you and what they have said in debates.

This site attracted record numbers at the 2010 election, including one in five users who said they had not previously engaged in politics. You could even cross reference what you find out on this site with the information available on public whip to see who voted the way you would like in the House of Commons.

And if you want to see if your local candidate is making promises they can’t keep or maybe playing fast and loose with the truth, you can use Full Fact to see if their policies bear any relation to reality. Further down the line, you might want to remember just what it was candidates were promising when you voted for them. Perhaps my favourite site for this is

This is an online notice board where users can upload images of election leaflets to record what their local candidates say they will do if elected. You can search for leaflets by party or by local area. It’s aiming for 10,000 leaflets uploaded by 7th May and has an archive of 6,000 from the last election. That’s a lot of information that could prove very useful for holding your elected representative to account over the course of the next parliament.

Will it work?

All these tools enable us to know far more about candidates, policies and, more generally, what they have been doing than ever before. They could make things messy, chaotic and unpredictable by challenging our long-held beliefs about the parties and the candidates. But they may also enable voters to become players in the political information cycle rather than just passive recipients of election spin.

With voters now more focused on single issues, these new sites give us a way of quickly finding out who has said and done what or who stands for what across many different issues. This time around, we won’t need to wait for a YouTube mash-up to know if the next Nick Clegg has u-turned.

This article was originally on the Conversation.



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What Do People Want To Know at This Election?

The Guardian’s data editor Alberto Nardelli says the top 10 most-Googled topics in the UK today are all about the election.

  1. Who should I vote for?
  2. Who are my local candidates?
  3. How do I vote?
  4. Where do I vote?
  5. Where is my polling station?
  6. What is the ‘who do I vote for’ quiz?
  7. What do I need to vote?
  8. Can I vote online?
  9. Who will win the election?
  10. Who can vote in the UK?