Downing Street: "strong case" for revisiting FOI law

Number 10 confirms plan to look again at ministerial veto over Freedom of Information requests, ahead of publication of Prince Charles' letters to departments

Downing Street has said there is a "strong case" for strengthening the right of ministers to veto Freedom of Information (FOI) releases, as the government braced itself for the publication of letters between Prince Charles and several departments.

The 27 handwritten notes were sent between the heir to the throne and seven government departments between 2004 and 2005, prompting Guardian journalist Rob Evans to lodge an FOI act request to see the contents of the correspondence. 

Following a ten-year legal battle – which included a 2012 veto by then-attorney general Dominic Grieve of the Information Tribunal's original decision to publish the letters – the Supreme Court in March approved their publication.

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Speaking ahead of their expected released today, the prime minister's official spokesman said there was now "some degree of a lack of clarity" over the exercise of the ministerial veto, which has previously been used to block the publication of Cabinet documents relating to the Iraq war and NHS reform.

"As we said at the time, given that the court ruling has generated some degree of uncertainty in this area, this is an area which the government will look at and consider carefully and thoroughly in the period ahead," the spokesman said.

He added: "We need to do this in a careful, considered way, I would emphasise that. Our view remains – as the government has argued in the lengthy legal proceedings – that there is a strong case for there being the ability to exercise a ministerial veto. Our view hasn’t changed but the ruling has generated some uncertainty in regards to those provisions and in the light of that we will consider this issue."

The spokesperson added that David Cameron believed in the importance of "confidential correspondence between the government and the sovereign, the heir to the throne".

There are currently 24 exemptions to the right of access in the Freedom of Information act, including on security grounds; where records concern impending prosecutions; and on information relating to communications between the Queen and ministers or other public bodies. In 2011, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) introduced "enhanced protection for information relating to communications with the Royal Family and Household", for the first time explicitly granting an "absolute exemption" for the heir to the throne and second in line to the throne.

Recent research by the Institute for Government found that public bodies dealt with more than 46,000 FOI requests in 2014, with the Department for Work and pensions receiving the most requests, followed by the MoJ and then the Ministry of Defence. 

Responding to Downing Street's position this afternoon, the Campaign for Freedom of Information said any move to amend the ministerial veto could see government overrule the information tribunal and the courts merely because "it prefers its own view to theirs, regardless of merits".

Freedom of Information legislation has previously been criticised by a number of senior figures, with Gus O'Donnell telling MPs during his time as Cabinet secretary that FOI was having "a very negative impact on the freedom of policy discussions". Tony Blair, the former prime minister whose government introduced the FOI act, has also rowed back from the decision, saying the introduction of new transparency laws had been "naive, foolish, [and] irresponsible".

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