Meeting notes 9th May 2016

OGN meeting with Matthew Hancock, Minister for the Cabinet Office | 21 April 2016

by Tim Hughes

Thursday, 21 April, 4:00pm – 4:45pm


Matthew Hancock MP, Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General (Chair)
Paul Maltby, Director of Data at Government Digital Service
Thom Townsend, Government Digital Service
Oliver Buckley, Deputy Director, Policy and International, Government Digital Service
Jeremy Foster, Policy Officer, Government Digital Service
Andy Williamson, Democratise
Colm Burns, NI Open Government Network
Edafe Onerhime, Open Contracting Partnership
Simon Burall, Involve
Stephanie Gamauf, Involve
Tim Hughes, Involve / OGN Coordinator

National Action Plan – current state of play

Parliamentary Openness

The minister noted that he was in favour of parliamentary openness and had recently had a helpful meeting with the Speaker of the House of Commons. He has subsequently written to him asking for the parliamentary commitments to be submitted to the plan and to confirm how Parliament might proceed with adopting them.

Open Contracting

Edafe Onerhime welcomed the progress being made on open contracting and emphasised the significance of the potential commitment. The minister agreed that it was an important matter. However, he stressed that any implementation steps had to be done in the most cost effective way and in a way that avoids gaming of the system.

Proactive Publication

Andy Williamson reported that there was opportunity to strengthen a commitment on proactive transparency by adding a commitment to improving the publication of ministerial meetings data.  The quality and format can be quite inconsistent. The Minister said that he would be happy to explore development of a commitment on improving publication standards.

FOI Code of Practice

Tim Hughes reported on progress around a commitment to revise the Freedom of Information Act Code of Practice and suggested that the action plan could be used to commit to revising the code through an open policy process.  The minister expressed his support for revising the Code of Practice in time, but stated that he was not in the position to make a clear statement on the shape and form of the process as decisions had not yet been made.  Tim stressed the importance and opportunity of adopting an open policy process to arrive at a Code of Practice that had widespread ownership. The Minister agreed that consultation was important, and although he could not commit to the whole proposal, he was willing to go a step further than the commitment he had made in his response to the FOI Commission.

Anti-Corruption Summit

Simon Burall expressed the OGN’s support for the Anti-Corruption Summit and the opportunity it presents for domestic and international reforms. Specifically he referred to civil society proposals to extend beneficial ownership transparency to property ownership and public contractors, and to the Overseas Territories.  The Minister stated that the government wished to push as far as they could, but that there is a judgement call to be made between utopia and practice.  Simon raised the importance of the Anti-Corruption Summit and OGP being integrated as far as possible, and asked what representation there would be from OGP.  Thom Townsend confirmed that invitations had been sent to representatives from the OGP, who would be present.  Simon also asked about representation of the Open Government Network at the Summit.  The minister responded that arrangements had not yet been finalised, but stressed the importance of getting the right choreography for the day, in particular ensuring that decision makers would feel included.

NAP development process

Simon Burall welcomed the effort and commitment the Cabinet Office had shown in developing the action plan.

Devolved nations

Colm Burns provided an update on the achievements made in Northern Ireland, with 200 members of the Northern Ireland Open Government Network.  Not long after the election there will be commitments from the Northern Ireland Executive. Colm expressed support for the collaborative approach, but stressed the importance of ensuring there is scope and recognition for the devolved nations. The minister agreed and accepted that it required a different way of working in Whitehall and increased communication with the nations.  Colm suggested a meeting after the launch in order to strengthen the development of an inclusive UK National Action Plan. The minister agreed, leaving it open whether it would be him or Eric Pickles taking part.  Tim reported back on a workshop in Scotland he attended the previous day, stating that there had been significant enthusiasm around the opportunities that the OGP presents.

Current challenges

Anti-Lobbying Clause

Simon introduced civil society concerns regarding the inclusion of anti lobbying clauses in government grants. There is concern about how the clause is drafted and exactly what it covers, and that it will make organisations feel unable to make representations to government that they would normally make.  The minister stated that the clause intended to stop tax payers money going to lobbyists – and prevent things that are in opposition to open policy making. He stated that it should not stop charities from using their funds to make their case.  Tim stated that there was need for clarity on the intention behind and scope of the clause, particularly as it comes in the context of earlier ministerial statements suggesting that it is not the place of charities to speak politically.  The Minister responded that such activities as writing a letter to him, or speaking to journalists would not be covered, and he would look for opportunities to ensure that the government was completely clear about the intent of this and what it will and won’t prevent.

[Please note: since the discussion between the Minister and the Open Government Network took place on 21 April, there has been a significant development with regards to the ‘anti-lobbying’ clause.  The Minister for the Cabinet Office announced on 27 April that the implementation of the clause would be paused, pending a review of the representations made.  We will take a decision on the form of the clause following this review.]

Land Registry Privatisation

Andy and Tim outlined concerns from the OGN that privatisation of the Land Registry would restrict open data and transparency.  The minister explained that the plan was not to privatise the data set but the operations of the land registry. Tim responded that although this was the case, the data would be under the control of the private company.  There is an important distinction between data that is free and data that is available but charged for. Tim reference recent research by the Open Data Institute on the economic value of open data. The minister noted the concerns and encouraged the OGN to respond to the current consultation.

FOI Commission

Tim reported that the recommendations of the FOI Commission were broadly welcomed by the OGN, but that there were still some areas of concern.  One related to the recommendation to remove the right to appeal to a First Tier Tribunal. The minister stated that he was very interested to hear views on this matter as there was an argument that it doesn’t add any value, and that it is better and quicker to go through upper tribunal, but he stated that there were no plans to revise the legislation on FOI. Tim further raised civil society concerns with MOJ proposals to introduce fees to appeal to the First Tier Tribunal that would deter requesters but not public authorities from appealing. The minister noted the concern, but explained that this was a proposal under a wider scheme of work being undertaken by MOJ to review how to pay for tribunals.

Implementation and continued development of Action Plan

Tim outlined the intention to treat this action plan as a rolling action plan, in order to strengthen the collaboration and overcome the risk of missing a political window due to the two year life span of the plan. The minister confirmed his commitment to a continuous dialogue as well as development of further policies and asked the OGN to keep up the pressure for new commitments. Paul Maltby stressed the importance of integrating open policy making processes such as this into the day to day work of government. Tim agreed and suggested that this could be one of the commitments for the June version of the plan.