UK Border Agency’s highly questionable interpretation of FOI law

OK, lets back up a bit here to the year 2000 and the reason the Freedom of Information Act 2000 was brought in – the Act was brought in so that the public would have a legal right to access promptly any information held by a public body except where this would be harmful. That includes the right to access information the public body or the people who work for it don’t want you to have because it is embarrassing or would take up a bit of their time to put together. That said let’s get back to December 2012 and to the UKBA’s reasons for withholding information from the public. UKBA have been asked for information about exclusion orders. I understand why it might not be appropriate to release names of individuals and I understand that it might not be appropriate to release information about ethnic groups where there are only a very small number of individuals, however UKBA’s response is ridiculous:

(my emphasis)

“We have considered whether to withhold only the names of the individuals concerned, but to release the rest of the information requested. However, we have concluded that the data relating to the years 2009-2011, most of the data relating to nationalities and the information on the basis of each individual’s exclusion order, relate to sufficiently small numbers of people that its release would breach the Data Protection Principles. This is because the information released could be linked to
particular individuals, or enable individuals to be identified if that information were cross referenced with other data that may be available via other sources. Although not all of the nationalities relate to very small numbers of people, we consider that the release of figures relating to some nationalities but not others, could similarly make it possible for someone, who already knows information relating to any of the other nationalities, to deduce information about individuals who have been excluded because they would know, from the omission of that nationality from our response, that they are from a nationality of which only a small number of people have been excluded.”

I am left wondering under what circumstances UKBA would release any aggregated statistical data whatsoever. Presumably, the UKBA officials would oppose the publication of the 99% literacy rate of the UK population because it would mean that I could be virtually certain that my next door neighbour was literate. To be honest I am surprised they even released the total figure of 32 because had I told my neighbour that I was the 100th person ever to receive an exclusion order and I got a special cake from UKBA he would now know I had lied. Presumably, UKBA cannot admit to not having a holding centre inside the Ritz Hotel in case someone happened to tell a friend they were in a holding centre and putting two and two together she deduces that he wasn’t staying at the Ritz. Seriously, though if you go down the UKBA route where does it end?

If you provide certain information to friends, neighbours and others it does make it more likely they can usually find out more information about you using other information in the public domain – that’s obvious and to a point you have to accept this.

Why can’t UKBA at least address the question: “In each case, what was the basis of the exclusion order?” for the 32 exclusion orders issued on a no names no nationalities basis?

The UK Border Agency’s highly questionable interpretation of FOI law is contrary to the spirit of transparency that is so badly needed in this country today.

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