Bob Kerslake: Don't use review to water down Freedom of Information act

Former head of the civil service says "public will draw their own conclusions" about any attempt to curb the transparency law

By Civil Service World

14 Dec 2015

The ongoing review of the Freedom of Information Act must not lead to the transparency law being watered down, the former head of the civil service has said.

Ministers have ordered a review of FoI act, with a panel led by former Treasury permanent secretary Lord Burns asked to look at whether the act allows "safe space" for policy formulation and whether it places too much of a burden on government bodies. But campaigners and media organisations have expressed fear that the commission will be used to curb government transparency, with FoI-sceptics including former home secretary Jack Straw sitting on the review panel.

Lord Kerslake, who stepped down as head of the civil service in 2014 after two years in the job, will today give evidence to a rival, cross-party commission set up by the Labour party to look at strengthening act. 

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Ahead of the hearing, he told The Times that he would not support major changes to the law.

"I suspect my views on Freedom of Information depart from many of my colleagues," Lord Kerslake said.

“But in summary, I am not in favour of any significant changes to it. The gap between the governing and the governed is already worryingly large and growing. We need more open government, not less."

While the crossbench peer ackowledged that FoI had "a cost", he said the burden on public bodies was outweighed by the the benefits to improving government.

"The public will draw their own conclusions about any attempt by politicians and officials to restrict their legitimate access to information," he warned.

A recent CSW survey of more than 4,000 civil servants found that the majority (50.12%) of officials would back the introduction of charging for FoI requests – a move under consideration by the review panel – with 37% opposed.

The Burns commission, which was originally expected to report by the end of the year, announced last week that it will now hold two oral evidence sessions in mid-January, with its conclusions published "as soon as possible" after that.

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