UK government’s transparency laws could undergo restrictions

By on 12/10/2015

Legislation creating a public right of access to information held by public authorities in the UK could undergo significant restrictions under proposals put forward by a commission reviewing the rules.

Under the Freedom of Information Act 2000, public authorities are obliged to publish certain information about their activities, and members of the public are entitled to request information from public authorities, including government departments, local authorities, the National Health Service, state schools and police forces.

But in July, the government set up the Independent Commission on Freedom of Information to review the act, which came into force in January 2005.

On Friday, the commission launched a public consultation, which argues that there is a “need for public bodies, including government, to have an internal deliberative space” and sets out a number of options for internal discussions to be exempted from the FoI Act.

The commission, according to the consultation document, “is interested to understand the impact that the act has had on the internal, deliberative space of public bodies” and “would welcome evidence on whether the act has led to an erosion in the public record, or in the inappropriate use of less formal means for decision-making.”

The commission is also considering whether ministers’ ability to veto disclosures should be strengthened and whether to charge members of the public for making FoI requests in order to “reduce the burden of FoI on public authorities.”

“It estimated that the wider public sector received 87,000 requests each year at a cost of £11m,” the document states, adding that “during the passage of the FoI bill, there was an expectation that a fee would be charged for making a request, but that was not implemented.”

It further states that “fees for information requests are quite common in other jurisdictions”, including Australia, where “the fee is around $15 per hour to search and retrieve documents” and Canada, where “there is a fee for making a request of $5.”

Ireland introduced a a €15 application fee under its FoI Act in 2003, but last year dropped it – though there remains a cost for appealing decisions.

Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, said: “Charges would be likely to deter large numbers of requests.

When the fee was introduced in Ireland, this “resulted in the number of requests falling to 25% of its previous level,” Frankel said, adding that “the same could occur here, reducing the scrutiny of public authorities and making it easier for them to say they are doing one thing when they are really doing the opposite.”

Frankel also said that some of the options being considered “could mean that a public authority’s internal discussions would remain secret for decades even if they revealed that critical mistakes had been made, inconvenient evidence had been ignored or poor decisions taken to satisfy commercial or other lobby groups”.

The campaign pointed out that Jack Straw, one of the commission’s five members, is on record as calling for the Act to be amended to prevent internal discussions being disclosed in the public interest and for charges to be made for FOI requests.

And on Friday, a senior commission figure conceded that the panel did mainly consist of people who had been the subject of FoI requests rather than campaigners submitting them.

Last month, more than 140 organisations wrote to the prime minister expressing concern about the commission’s membership and terms of reference, pointing out that the government would normally expressly avoid appointing members who had already reached and expressed firm views on the issues.

A spokesperson for the Independent Commission on FOI said: “Freedom of Information is an area of considerable public interest and we want to hear the views of as many people as possible, which is why we have launched the public call for evidence.

“The commission is an independent body, with no pre-determined view, and is interested in gathering as much objective evidence as possible on the questions posed in the call for evidence which have been drawn directly from its terms of reference.”

In May, Gabriel Makhlouf, chief economic and financial adviser to New Zealand’s government, told Global Government Forum about the benefits of the high levels of transparency in New Zealand, where civil servants’ advice is published.

According to New Zealand’s Official Information Act, all advice given to ministers is generally made public once a decision has been taken, whereas in the UK this information is not publicly available.

Makhlouf, who joined the New Zealand government as a senior official five years ago, after 15 years as senior civil servant in the UK, argued that the benefits of operating a transparent system outweigh its cost.

He said: “I mean, sure there are costs to operating a system of publishing advice and one needs to think about how you actually administer a system like that, but the principle of transparency I think is a positive thing.”

The consultation on the review of Britain’s FoI Act will be receiving responses until 20 November online or by email at foi.commission@justice.gsi.gov.uk.

The Commission’s review is expected to make recommendations before the end of the year.

 

See also: Our full interview with Gabriel Makhlouf, chief executive of New Zealand’s Treasury and newsGovernments ‘could benefit’ from high levels of transparency championed by New Zealand, Treasury chief says

About Winnie Agbonlahor

Winnie is news editor of Global Government Forum. She previously reported for Civil Service World - the trade magazine for senior UK government officials. Originally from Germany, Winnie first came to the UK in 2006 to study a BA in Journalism & Russian at the University of Sheffield. She is bilingual in English and German, and, after spending an academic year abroad in Russia and reporting for the Moscow Times, Winnie also speaks Russian fluently.

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