Freedom of information under threat from new Commission

The Government has announced the creation of a new Commission to review the Freedom of Information Act which campaigners fear will lead to a major attack on the public’s right to know.

The Commission has been asked to consider whether new measures are needed to protect the government’s internal discussions from disclosure and to reduce the ‘burden’ of the FOI Act.

The establishment of the Commission comes despite the Justice Select Committee concluding in 2012 that the Act had proved “a significant enhancement of our democracy” and was “working well”, as well as stating that “we do not believe that there has been any general harmful effect at all on the ability to conduct business in the public service, and in our view the additional burdens are outweighed by the benefits.”

Members of the Commission will include the former foreign secretary Jack Straw, Lord Carlile of Berriew, Michael Howard and Dame Patricia Hodgson.  Jack Straw has already publicly called for the act to be rewritten and is himself currently the subject of FOI requests over the rendition of a man suspected of terrorism while he was in office.

The Campaign for Freedom of Information believes that the government is considering three measures to restrict the FOI Act:

  • preventing the disclosure of government policy discussions
  • strengthening the ministerial veto
  • making it easier for authorities to refuse FOI requests on cost grounds

The Campaign’s director Maurice Frankel said:

“The government is clearly proposing to crack down on FoI. Ministers want certainty that policy discussions will not only take place in secret but be kept secret afterwards.  They don’t like the fact that the Act requires the case for confidentiality to be weighed against the public interest in disclosure.

“The Commissioner and Tribunal give substantial weight to the need to protect ongoing government discussions and the frankness of future exchanges.  But after a decision has been announced they sometimes order disclosure where exchanges are anodyne, the material is old or the case for openness is overwhelming.  If that balancing test is removed mistakes, bad decisions and policy failures caused by deliberately ignoring the evidence will be concealed for 20 years.”

Leigh Day partner, Russell Levy, who is Chairman of the Campaign said “By appointing political dinosaurs like Jack Straw, Michael Howard and Alex Carlile to the Commission and moving responsibility for FoI from the Ministry of Justice to the Cabinet Office, the Government has clearly signalled its hostile intentions.  It is vital that all those who are in favour of transparency in public office band together to oppose further restrictions on the disclosure of information.

“The Campaign for Freedom of Information has very limited resources and is run on a shoestring budget.  I hope that all those who have seen the enormous benefits the Campaign’s work have brought over the past 30 years will help by making a financial contribution to the Campaign now.”

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