FOI Commission Reports

FOIMan welcomes the publication of the FOI Commission’s long-awaited report and the Government’s promise not to make legal changes to the Act.

Cabinet Office

Cabinet Office

So the FOI Commission has finally reported. Many were pleasantly surprised to find that its report was well balanced and not the all out attack on FOI that had been predicted.

What’s more, the Government’s initial response suggested that the threat to FOI was over. The Cabinet Minister told the Press that “no legal changes” would be made, which would appear to rule out changes to exemptions, the appeal process and some of the other less welcome recommendations of the Commission.

It’s not clear though whether the threat has gone away completely. The Cabinet Minister, Matt Hancock’s statement in Parliament omitted the “no legal changes” phrase. Even if we do accept his quote at face value, it is not clear whether this reluctance to legislate extends to secondary legislation such as would be needed to amend the cost limit and the factors relevant in its calculation. One of the Commission’s proposals was to remove the First Tier Tribunal from the current appeal process. Mr Hancock’s press statement would again appear to rule this out in the short term. However, a recent consultation on Tribunal fees left open the possibility of charging for access to the Tribunal. Whilst the Commission gave short shrift to universities hoping to be removed from the Act’s coverage, the Department of Business and Innovation has apparently commented that a proposal along these lines in the recent Higher Education Green Paper “wasn’t related to govt review…responses on all proposals are being assessed”. So BIS is making clear that this is still on the table which may give HE critics of FOI hope.

Despite these notes of caution, that the Commission’s report and more importantly, the Government’s response, have turned out more positively than any of us hoped a few months ago is cause for celebration. It is also a victory for the hard work and resilience of Maurice Frankel’s Campaign for FOI which put together a formidable campaign. The fact that tabloid newspapers, Conservative MPs, former Ministers and even a former Head of the Civil Service, were prepared to speak out alongside the usual suspects was a major step forward. And we now have two thorough examinations of FOI – one by a Parliamentary Select Committee, and one by a government Commission – which have concluded that FOI works well. Perhaps it will now be a while before a government proposes another scrutiny of the Act. Let’s hope so.

This isn’t the end though. The Government has promised to make changes to the s45 Code of Practice, and to do more to encourage proactive publication of data. The Commission made some positive noises about extension of the Act, and many would like to now press the government to move in that direction. And there will be implications too of the General Data Protection Regulation – in particular in respect of how requests involving personal data should be handled. So even though the danger to FOI may be much reduced, there are still many developments to watch out for in the coming months and years.

If you’d like to hear more about the FOI Commission, and in particular what it tells us about how the UK Act has evolved, and where it is going, I’ll be speaking about this at Understanding Modern Government’s FOI course on 17 March. A day before that, you can also join me for a special one-off webinar on the Commission and the future of FOI for Act Now Training. Please do join me for one or both of these events.

3 comments

  1. Doug Paulley says:

    It is indeed a relief that the Commission hasn’t recommended charges for FOI requests, extension of the veto or other hobbling measures. I think that we owe those who fought these changes with such passion and unchallengable argument. It is a shame that they haven’t recommended extending the powers to other bodies that undertake statutory duties, such as charities and PPP, as recommended by many – but perhaps that would have been too much to ask from a Commission that looked like it was set up with the express purpose of hobbling the right to freedom of information.

    On a practical note, the Commission states that it has “read, and considered” over 30,000 submissions in response to their consultation, including “29,334 individual responses via the 38 degrees campaign website”. Context suggests that these 29,334 weren’t “nearly identical emails” – they refer to some co-ordinated by another group as such. I frankly don’t see how they could have read and considered 30,000+ submissions in the time… But no matter.

  2. David Matthew says:

    Whilst the announcement appears to be good news I will wait until I see what Cabinet Office do and say in the next few months. The fact that 20,000 responses were received by the Commission clearly took them by surprise. However the fact that the Cabinet Office still have not released all of the Government records they are responsible for (No 10 and Cabinet Office)that should have been released in December 2015, the first time this has happened since the Public Records Act 1958 was implemented on 1st January 1959. The files on the economy and security are amongst those missing and one does wonder if the Cabinet Office are trying to hide something!. The descriptions for these missing files are not on The National Archives (TNA) website. You may have noticed that TNA are charging for FOI queries on the National Register 1939 classifying it as ‘research’.

  3. […] new open government rules been influenced by events here? Perhaps even more interesting, following the FOI Commission’s report, are there things that the UK government can learn from its […]