Gus: FoI report ‘missed chance’

The Justice Select Committee’s review of the Freedom of Information Act is “an opportunity missed to create more certainty around policy advice”, former cabinet secretary Lord O’Donnell has told CSW.

David Anderson

By Civil Service World

08 Aug 2012

The committee published its report Post-legislative scrutiny of the FoI Act 2000 on 26 July. Lord O’Donnell called it a “thoughtful report with many sensible suggestions,” but added: “I wish it had been bolder in calling for more proactive transparency” – an emphasis on voluntary publication of new data, rather than the reactive approach fostered by FoI legislation.

Concerns had earlier been voiced by Lord O’Donnell that FoI rules create a “chilling effect” constraining open, on-the-record policy advice to ministers. In his evidence to the committee, O’Donnell said that officials will find alternative ways of giving advice: “You basically find a medium which is not covered by FoI. The cost of mobile phone bills goes up between ministers. They are going to find ways around it. Things are not going to be written down.”

However, this view has been rejected by the justice committee, which said that although there is at least a “perception” of a problem, it believes the existing provisions of the Act can be better applied to ensure that high-level policy discussions are not inhibited.

The committee’s report argues that so-called “safe areas” of discussion and a ministerial veto are sufficient to protect the confidentiality of advice.

Other recommendations from the committee include higher fines for the destruction of information; an amendment to protect universities from having to disclose data in advance of publishing research; requiring public bodies to publish their response times to FoI requests; making available the names of those requesting information; and obliging private providers of public services to comply with FoI rules.

A spokeswoman from the Ministry of Justice said: “The government remains committed to the Freedom of Information Act, which has been in operation for seven years, but it is right that Parliament has used the process of post-legislative scrutiny to examine whether it is working effectively. The government is considering the recommendations in the select committee’s report, and will respond later this year.”

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