Points of View 17th July 2015

New FOI commission heralds “crackdown on the right to know” | Campaign for Freedom of Information

by Tim Hughes

The Campaign for Freedom of Information has released this statement on today’s announcement of a Commission to review the Freedom of Information Act:

A major attack on the public’s right to information is likely following the government’s announcement today of a new Commission to review the Freedom of Information Act, according to the Campaign for Freedom of Information. 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 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.”

The Campaign pointed out that the FOI Act had been fully examined only 3 years ago, by the Justice Select Committee in its post legislative scrutiny of the Act. The committee reported in 2012 that FOI had proved “a significant enhancement of our democracy”, that the Act was “was working well” and concluded 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.”

For an account of the way in which recent Tribunal decisions have protected genuinely frank discussions but ordered disclosure of inconsequential exchanges see this article on the Campaign’s web site.

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