Martin

Commons committee evidence

The House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee is holding an inquiry into the Cabinet Office and freedom of information. I have given written evidence and oral evidence to the committee, setting out my experience of the Cabinet Office’s record of delay and obstruction and my views on what should be done about it.

From Morgan to Frankie

The most popular gender-neutral first names given to babies in England and Wales in 2020 were Frankie, River and Harley.

Looking back at a longer period, the most common gender-neutral first names over the past 25 years were Morgan, Charlie and Taylor.

This is according to my analysis of the baby name datasets for England and Wales issued by the Office for National Statistics, who released their figures for 2020 a few days ago.

The ONS compiles separate datasets for the names of boys and girls. Their annual lists of most popular boys’ and girls’ names are always widely reported. I decided to examine something they don’t analyse – the frequency of gender-neutral or unisex names.

In 2020 there were just 10 first names given at birth to both over 100 girls and over 100 boys. They are listed in this table:

They are ordered according to how often they were used for whichever sex they were less popular for. This measure is mine. As it reflects the frequency of the names in both cases, it seems to me to capture gender-neutrality or ‘unisexness’ better than any other criterion I came up with, although other approaches are possible.

Here is a comparable table compiled on the same basis for the past 25 years in total (the published ONS data goes back to 1996), featuring the 12 first names given at birth both to over 2,000 girls and over 2,000 boys:

So Morgan is the leading unisex first name over this time range, the only name to have been given to over 9,000 girls and also over 9,000 boys in the 25-year period from 1996 to 2020. However it has declined considerably in popularity in recent years, as have some other names in this table.

It’s often said that there has been a long-term phenomenon of unisex names becoming ‘feminised’. Some traditional boys’ names start to become popular for girls too, and then parents apparently no longer want to give them to boys (classic examples include Evelyn and Shirley).

However there seems to be little evidence of such a trend in the ONS data over the past 25 years.

As one way to get an overall impression of this, each line on this chart below represents one of the 50 most popular gender-neutral names, and each column is a year, going chronologically from 1996 on the left to 2020 on the right. For each name, cells are coloured more in red for years when they were more popular for girls and more in blue when more popular for boys. (The colour-coding may be stereotypical, but it does make the chart more intuitive to grasp easily).

As time advances, the names move more from the redder/pinker areas to bluer ones than in the opposite way (although by no means uniformly).

That suggests these gender neutral names are not becoming feminised; if anything they appeared to get a bit more popular for boys (ie bluer) and less popular for girls.

However looking at the data in more detail it seems that what is happening is mainly a trend amongst girls: in particular it’s becoming less common to give girls names like Charlie and Jamie, which are largely boys’ names but which 15 to 25 years ago were also used for a fair number of girls.

What this does mean is that unisex names now are more likely to be broadly similar in popularity for both girls and boys, rather than include various predominantly boys’ names which are also given to some girls.

Finally, it’s important to note that generally these unisex or gender-neutral names aren’t very popular at all. So from my list of top 10 unisex names in 2020, Frankie, the highest for boys, is only 61st in popularity for boys’ names overall that year; and Eden, the highest for girls, only just squeezes into the top 100 girls’ names at 98th.

Parents do seem to prefer to give their children names which are clearly recognisable as belonging to either a girl or a boy.

Note: The ONS data (and therefore this analysis) is based on the specific spellings of names on birth certificates and does not take account of similar names. In other words, Charlie and Charley, for example, are treated as entirely different names.


Transparency concern ignored in Elliot appointment

Ben Elliot, the founder of the luxury lifestyle services company Quintessentially, was appointed as the government’s Food Surplus and Waste Champion in 2018 without an official interview or open competition, despite civil servants warning ministers about a lack of transparency.

This is revealed in documents released by Defra under freedom of information. Bizarrely the department originally informed me that it did not hold any information at all about Elliot’s appointment.

After I complained to the Information Commissioner, Defra’s information rights team said that it had now located these records “after further extensive searches”.

Elliot has been co-chair of the Conservatives since 2019 and is the party’s chief fundraiser. The nephew of Camilla Parker Bowles, he has featured in controversy and been accused of blurring his political role, business interests and royal connections, which he denies.

In November 2018 Defra officials sent a proposal about the appointment of a new food waste champion to the then Environment Secretary Michael Gove and junior Defra minister Therese Coffey. From the newly disclosed material it is apparent that ministers had already made clear that they wanted to give the position to Elliot and they had no interest in alternative suggestions.

The submission stated: “The most transparent process to appoint the Champion would be to hold an open competition for the role. However, such a process would take time and we know you are keen to appoint quickly to influence delivery of the food redistribution fund. We have therefore considered a number of potential candidates for the Food Surplus and Waste Champion role. You have put forward Ben Elliot as your preferred candidate, and taking this into account as well as his suitability, we recommend Ben Elliott for this role.”

The officials however also identified a number of other suitably qualified possible candidates for the post. Ministers responded by saying the role should be given to Elliot and none of the potential alternatives should be approached to check if they might be interested.

At that stage officials said that Elliot would need to be “officially interviewed” by the Secretary of State before the appointment was announced. However that requirement was then abandoned.

The role of the champion (which is unpaid) is to encourage food businesses to devote greater effort to reducing waste. Defra sources say Elliot has been involved in assisting an emergency programme administered via the environmental charity WRAP during the pandemic. The Quintessentially Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Elliot’s company, had prior to his appointment supported the Felix Project, a charity in London which redistributes food that would otherwise go to waste.

A Defra spokesperson said: “Reasonable searches were conducted at the time the request was originally received.”



ICO latest casework dataset

The incoming Information Commissioner will face a serious challenge in getting on top of the ICO’s increased backlog of FOI cases.

The ICO currently has 2,317 open complaints under the Freedom of Information Act and Environmental Information Regulations, according to the latest database of their open casework which I have obtained from them.

It shows 79 cases which the ICO has already taken over a year to process. Of these, nine concern complaints about the Cabinet Office and six about the Foreign Office, including several relating to the FOI exemption for security bodies.

The oldest case goes back over two years and involves Transport for London and the use of the cost limit exemption.

The ICO states this dataset for open casework can’t be directly compared to the active FOI caseload obtained from May by the Campaign for Freedom of Information, which listed 1,748 open complaints. The new dataset includes various cases not in that one, including EIR complaints, and also cases where the ICO is awaiting further information before launching an investigation – according to the ICO there is a “subtle difference” between what it calls its “active caseload” and its “open casework”.

The ICO says: “We have plans in place to address the rise in work over the coming financial year, particularly as the new staff we have recently recruited complete their training and ways of working return to normal.”

ICO and the pre-pandemic delays

The latest performance data issued by the Information Commissioner’s Office confirms how the ICO was falling behind on dealing with FOI cases before the pandemic.

Yesterday the ICO released a new batch in its ‘proactive disclosure’ of monthly complaints data. This is somewhat old given it covers a period two years ago, from April to August 2019, but it does show how its record on processing FOI and EIR casework was deteriorating even before the disruption caused by Covid.

The average time taken on a case closed in this period which involved a decision notice was 176 days. Comparing this to the same 5-month timeframe in previous years where data is still available gives the following, according to my calculations based on the ICO datasets:

Average time taken to close FOI/EIR cases which involve decision notices:

Apr-Aug 2014: 142 days
Apr-Aug 2015: 122 days
Apr-Aug 2016: 141 days
Apr-Aug 2017: 158 days
Apr-Aug 2018: 159 days
Apr-Aug 2019: 176 days

Analysing the monthly complaints data demonstrates a disturbing pattern of increasing delay over these years.

From around 2017 the ICO started to deal more quickly with simple cases it could reject easily on procedural grounds (eg because the complainant failed to ask the public authority involved for an internal review before approaching the ICO). But the delays have got even longer for complaints which go to a formal ICO decision notice – and these would include the significant cases that really matter.

Since the pandemic took hold matters have of course got worse, as was revealed in data obtained by the Campaign for Freedom of Information.

There’s also a very useful analysis of numerous aspects of ICO operational data in this report by the researcher Lucas Amin for the campaign group openDemocracy.

The latest ICO annual report said: “There will be a focus on these matters as lockdown restrictions are lifted to be able to progress the oldest cases as soon as possible, nonetheless, there is an obvious effect on both those cases over 12 months old as well as the age profile generally. It is anticipated that this will be rectified in the medium term.”

What constitutes “the medium term” is not clear.

Rural Payments Agency failings

The Rural Payments Agency fails to deal with most information requests it receives within the legal time limits, according to the latest set of FOI statistics published today.

The RPA, which issues subsidy payments to farmers in England, managed to meet the legal deadline in only 47 per cent of cases in the first quarter of 2021, the period covered by these figures. This was by far the worst record of delay among the departments and agencies monitored in these statistics – and continues a pattern of the RPA’s comparative poor performance.

The government department with the worst record of delay was DCMS.

Generally there was a 10 per cent increase in the number of FOI requests to the UK government departments and agencies monitored compared to the same period last year, after drops in the intervening months doubtless linked to the pandemic.

Organisations which have received significantly more requests include the Department of Health and Social Care (hardly surprisingly), the Charity Commission and the Office for National Statistics.

The longer term overall picture, as seen in my chart, is that the level of FOI requests to government departments increased steadily after FOI came into force in 2005 until it peaked in 2013, since when there has been a slightly bumpy plateau. (The chart is adjusted to reflect the fact that the first quarter of each year tends to see the most requests).

Chart showing FOI requests to UK government departments since 2005