Info commissioner criticises FoI ‘nonsense’ by ‘Whitehall insiders’

Christopher Graham, the information commissioner, has criticised the “nonsense” from some civil servants who claim that the Freedom of Information Act (FoIA) threatens good government.

By Civil Service World

22 Feb 2012

Writing in the Observer newspaper last Sunday, Graham said: “On the Freedom of Information Act, a chorus of distinguished Whitehall insiders would have us believe, against all the evidence, that the act threatens good government because nobody dares write anything down any more.”
He added that “it’s nonsense to say that the act threatens to make public what really ought to remain secret for 30 years”. Conversations that genuinely need to remain private are protected by a system of tribunals and vetoes, he argued.

Graham wrote that “the only effect of crying danger is to mislead civil servants, politicians and their advisers that there is no safe space for the development of policy, when the run of decision notices from my office and judgements by the tribunal shows the exact opposite. It is in fact the irrational fear of ‘no hiding place’ from the act that might encourage people to cut corners.”

In defence of the existing system, Graham pointed out that although he’s ordered publication of the Health and Social Care Bill’s risk register, it won’t be made public unless a tribunal – “where the public interest arguments can be debated” – decides in favour of publication.

The Commons’ justice select committee (see Special Report) is about to embark on post-legislative scrutiny of the Freedom of Information Act, and in recent weeks some senior figures – including former cabinet secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell – have voiced concerns that the FoIA has had a chilling impact on policy debates within government.

However, Graham sounded confident that the committee will back his stance. “Quiet, calm deliberation by the Justice Committee… will dispose of all this special pleading,” he concluded.

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