Section 40 of the FOI act exempts bodies like the MHRA from disclosing "personal information" – and the MHRA frequently relies on it. Is this reliance excessive, when it leads to the obliteration (‘redaction’) of the names of people, acting in an official capacity, who disclose potential conflicts of interest at meetings, give evidence on some point, sign off some opinion or evaluation on the Agency’s behalf, or who are just copied into some correspondence? It seems so.

The FOI Act ‘borrows’ the definition of ‘personal information’ used in the Data Protection Act 1998 – not that the definition is that too clear. However, the guidance given by the Department for Constitution Affairs on how the FOI Act should be interpreted seems reasonably straightforward:

"For most government departments that receive requests for personal data of someone other than the applicant, the application of section 40 will in most circumstances turn on whether disclosure of the information to a member of the public would be 'unfair'.

Consider how this policy was applied in the most recent MHRA response to our queries about the Seroxat/paroxetine placebo suicides. Attached to Agent Fawbert’s letter of 20 November was an email he either sent to or received from colleague(s) unknown, suggesting the precise form of words that might be used to very softly explain that the Agency had again provided misleading information. The red blush has been added, but the email otherwise reads exactly as follows:

From: [text redacted Section 40 FOIA]
Sent: 13 October 2006 17:20
To: [
text redacted Section 40 FOIA]
Cc: [
text redacted Section 40 FOIA]
Subject: FW: FOI 06/324 (re. 06/236)
text redacted Section 40 FOIA]
I suggest the following response:

The members of the CSM Expert working Group on SSRIs were supplied with an assessment of of MAH responses for the paroxetine referral at their meeting of 27 Feb 04. This assessment (of which I believe you have a copy) contained a summary of the cases of suicide with paroxetine. I would like to correct one of the points made in Miss Wark's letter of 4 September 2006. The case narratives themselves were not supplied to the SSRI Expert Working Group but were supplied to the European scientific advisory committee, the Committee for Medicinal Products for Human Use (CHMP).

So, on the one hand, the MHRA behaves as if it has nothing to apologise for; on the other hand, they think it would be unfair to identify the person(s) who never did nothing wrong. This seems ridiculous – not least because the secrecy is pretty much an invitation to speculate that the author of the mistake was also the author of this crude attempt at denial. If that wasn’t the case, it really would be unfair …

Why would the MHRA make a secret of who sent and received the mail and what it said, in full? It has precious little to do with "personal information" – any more than the signature on a letter does. The issues here seem overwhelmingly to do with hiding institutional embarrassment, denying responsibility and avoiding accountability, and hiding evidence of lack of effective organisation.

I am still wondering whether this email was copied to anyone in the MHRA’s Communications Division – or whether the VRMM is ploughing this rut only with help from the Agency legal department, but otherwise on its own. In the meantime, this seems such a vexatious refusal, I have requested a formal review

Already this request is looking like another example of wasted opportunities to control the costs of dealing with Freedom of Information Requests. See: HOW MUCH DOES THE MHRA CONTRIBUTE TO THE COSTS OF FOI?

Charles Medawar
27 November 2006