Lord Kerslake steps up defence of Freedom of Information – and rejects "chilling effect" claims

Former head of the civil service tells Labour's own FoI review that intentional leaks to the press show "double standard" in Whitehall over the transparency law

By matt.foster

15 Dec 2015

Former civil service head Lord Kerslake has praised the Freedom of Information (FoI) act, saying the transparency law "tips the balance" in Whitehall in favour of openness.

An independent review of the FoI act – led by former Treasury permanent secretary Lord Burns – is currently underway, and is looking at claims the law does not allow "safe space" for policy formulation and places too much of a burden on government bodies. 

Campaigners and media organisations have warned that the review panel – which includes figures such as former home secretary Jack Straw who have gone on the record with their concerns about FoI – will be used to curb government transparency.

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Kerslake – who stepped down as head of the civil service in 2014 after two years in the job – on Monday told a rival commission set up by the Labour party that he believed the law had had a positive impact on Whitehall culture.

"I do feel feel very passionate about this," he said. "It's not just the individual cases [...] it has shifted the culture.

"I've lost count of the number of times I was in conversation about whether we should publish something or not, and people said: 'Well, we might as well publish it because it's going to be FoI-able.' It tips the balance towards openness and that is absolutely fundamental."

The former civil service head argued that FoI could help to close the "yawning gap between the governing and the governed in this country", and distanced himself from claims that the law had a "chilling effect" on policy formulation.

"If people are experiencing a chilling effect it's largely in their own heads, not in reality," he said. "The act is now a mature piece of legislation with perfectly predictable outcomes.

"The far greater challenge is the fact that information is routinely leaked by special advisers and ministers. There is a double standard going on here we should just acknowledge. The public see that and [see] that information is controlled."

Lord Kerslake also said the Burns review panel was made of figures who did not have experience in "challenging" institutions, and heaped praise on the current information watchdog Christopher Graham.

"I think Christopher Graham has done an effective job in his role," Lord Kerslake said. "It's no coincidence that he is a former journalist very unlike the commission which seems to be populated by people who have spent their lives defending institutions, not challenging them." 

Graham last month used his submission to the FoI review to warn against the introduction of charges for routine information requests, saying such a move – which is under consideration by the Burns commission – could have a "deterrent effect" and create more work for departments.

A recent CSW survey of more than 4,000 officials found that the majority (50.12%) would back the introduction of charges, with 37% opposed.

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