Following a Conservative manifesto commitment in 2015 to increase transparency in government, the Cabinet Office has published the UK Open Government National Action Plan 2016-2018. This is the third National Action Plan (“NAP“) since the United Kingdom co-founded the Open Government Partnership in 2011, which now includes 69 countries.
The new NAP makes 13 commitments in relation to transparency, anti-corruption and open government. In particular, the NAP aims to address certain recommendations made by the Independent Commission on Freedom of Information (the “Commission“), which published its final report in March 2016. In Commitment 8 of the NAP, the Government pledges to make plans for enhanced transparency measures, including data about senior pay and benefits for Government officials, and to update and expand the Code of Practice under s.45 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (“FOIA“).
Senior Government pay and benefits
While there are existing obligations in relation to the disclosure of information regarding the pay of senior Government officials, the Commission was firmly of the view that more could be done. The Commission’s report recommended greater proactive transparency about senior executive pay and benefits, which could be achieved through requiring public bodies to publish in their annual statement of accounts a breakdown of the benefits in kind and expenses of senior employees. The NAP acknowledges that information on senior pay and benefits increases transparency, and that the public should not have to resort to making information access requests under FOIA for such transparency to be achieved. The Cabinet Office intends to issue guidance to public authorities to set a higher standard for the publication of senior level pay and benefits by this summer.
FOIA Code of Practice
The Code of Practice sets out the practice that the Government considers desirable for public bodies to follow in meeting their obligations under FOIA. However, it was issued in 2004, which was before FOIA came into force, and has not been updated since.
The Commission recommended that the government review and update the Code to take account of the ten years of operation of FOIA. An updated Code will be more useful for public authorities as it will take into account the various legal developments since 2004 that frame their FOIA obligations. In theory, this should mean that public authorities find it easier to respond to requests under FOIA. According to the NAP, the Cabinet Office will consult on and issue a new Code of Practice by the end of this year.
An increased culture of openness?
Following the publication of the Commission’s final report we suggested that supporters of FOIA remain cautiously hopeful that FOIA will continue to work well. While the exact form of the Government’s plans is yet to be confirmed, those same supporters will continue be heartened by a commitment to implement the recommendations of the Commission over the course of this year.