Jeremy Heywood on Freedom Of Information: public doesn't stand for secrecy

Freedom of Information has been a "very big positive" in spite of "chilling effects", says Cabinet secretary

Cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood has defended the principle of the Freedom of Information act, after ministers launched an independent review of the transparency legislation.

In July, the government unveiled a cross-party commission to look at whether existing transparency laws allowed "safe space" for "frank" discussion of government policy. The review –  led by former Treasury permanent secretary Lord Burns – has come under fire from a number of campaign and media organisations over fears it may be used to restrict public access to information.

The Cabinet secretary defended the spirit of FOI at an Institute for Government event last night, in spite of what he called its occasional “chilling effects”.

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Asked by one senior Foreign Office official in the audience whether he would seek to take the “sand out of the machinery” by backing changes to the Act, Heywood said it was right that the panel would weigh up the "pros and cons of the current regime".

"Clearly there are some extra costs that come with the Freedom of Information act, [and] there are some chilling effects, no doubt about it," the Cabinet secretary said.

“But equally it’s been a very big positive. I think in this day and age the public doesn’t stand for secrecy. I think frankly in most cases the civil service or the public service generally has got absolutely nothing to hide. 

“There are some areas of national security or advice to ministers where it’s best done confidentially and best revealed at a later stage. The Freedom of Information Act basically recognises that, that’s what the intention was. But I think it’s for others to judge. This independent review has been asked to look at this and we’ll see what they come up with. And the government will make a decision. It won’t be down to me.”

"Civil service machine"

Heywood remarks came as the editor of The Sun, Tony Gallagher, launched a personal attack on Heywood over Freedom of Information, claiming that civil servants "hate" the legislation.

"The people that are really behind this, and the people that hate this [FoI] even more, is the civil service machine,” he told a panel discussion hosted by investigative journalism publication Exaro last night.

"So I think it’s fair to say that the far more guilty party would be the cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood," Mr Gallagher added.

"Bearing in mind this is the self-same man who has for a very long time resisted the idea that public documents should be handed to the Chilcot inquiry, and eventually handed over the gist of conversations between Tony Blair and George Bush.

"So I think if we are going to direct that fire anywhere it’s probably towards the cabinet secretary and the senior management rather than the politicians."

Tony Blair, the former prime minister whose government introduced the FOIA, later expressed regret at the "naive, foolish" decision, saying it had undermined "sensible government". Heywood's predecessor Lord O'Donnell has also argued that the requirement to release Cabinet minutes risked inhibiting "real discussions" between ministers.

This week 140 press and campaign bodies – including BSkyB, Exaro, Guardian News and Media, the Press Association and Democratic Audit – wrote to prime minister David Cameron to raise their concerns over the make-up of the review panel, which includes noted FOI-sceptic Jack Straw, the former home secretary.

"An independent Commission is expected to reach its views based on the evidence presented to it rather than the pre-existing views of its members," their letter stated.

"Indeed, in appointing members to such a body we would expect the government to expressly avoid those who appear to have already reached and expressed firm views. It has done the opposite. 

"The government does not appear to intend the Commission to carry out an independent and open minded inquiry. Such a review cannot provide a proper basis for significant changes to the FOI Act."

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