FOI Man comments on his morning at the FOI Post-Legislative Scrutiny
This morning I attended the latest session of the Post-Legislative Scrutiny being carried out by the Justice Select Committee. I was live tweeting the whole session, and became so accomplished that I was told afterwards that my Tweets were beating the live feed from the Committee Room to the Internet by several seconds! There were a few points I wanted to pick up on.
The first half of the session was given over to higher education, which as regular readers will know, is an area close to my heart as it keeps me in gainful employment. Despite this, you will also know that I have had my disagreements with the higher education establishment of late due to their attempts to introduce an exemption that will, in my view, be of little use, and their regular suggestions that they shouldn’t really be subject to the Act at all.
Well there was little to indicate that they had had a change of heart. The three witnesses, Professor Ian Diamond, representing UUK, Professor Trevor McMillan, the 1994 Group, and Dr Rodney Eastwood of the Russell Group, were generally negative about the impact of FOI. They did concede that it had prompted improvements in records management, but otherwise they felt it hadn’t helped. Universities were already open they maintained, and in fact FOI impacted negatively on their attempts to develop a more open culture.
What was interesting was that yet again, they were seemingly unable to provide any evidence of their claims. Several times the MPs asked them for evidence, and each time the witnesses responded that they were unable to provide it. Could they demonstrate that research was moving abroad because of FOI? No. Could they show that universities were being forced to disclose research data? No, because there hadn’t been many requests (a point that I made here some weeks ago). Could they provide evidence of the sort of data that it might be necessary to protect? No (Sir Alan Beith, the Committee Chairman, appeared to express some exasperation at this point).
It was left to Committee Members to throw them a line. Elfyn Lloyd of Plaid Cymru pointed to evidence from the University of London that it only received 14% public funding (interestingly, the Russell Group representative, Dr Rodney Eastwood, appeared unable to give a figure when asked about the proportion of public funding for higher education institutions – you have to ask whether they had gone to any trouble to prepare for the hearing at all). At some point I’d like to investigate the figures being presented as publicly funded. I’d hazard a guess that they exclude existing university infrastructure (much of which will have been publicly funded); tuition fees (which arguably just move funding from the general public to a specific subset of the public); and research funding from public bodies.
They did at least rule out charging bona fide requesters for requests. Whatever that might mean.
In the second half of the Committee hearing, we heard from the media, in the form of David Higgerson, representing the Newspaper Society, Martin Rosenbaum of the BBC (though attending in his own capacity), Doug Wills, of the Independent and the Evening Standard, and David Hencke, representing the National Union of Journalists. Unsurprisingly perhaps, they were all supportive of FOI. They were critical of public bodies for not answering requests quickly enough, and for using exemptions inappropriately.
But they were able to demonstrate how important FOI is for public debate. David Hencke gave the excellent recent example of the exposure of the Head of the Student Loans Company’s tax arrangements, which has prompted a debate about public sector tax arrangements. It was noted that the savings to the Government from ensuring that taxes were paid were almost certainly greater than the cost of answering the FOI requests.
The journalists were asked if they should pay for their use of FOI as commercial organisations. Unsurprisingly they weren’t keen. David Hencke very forcefully made the point that we have all paid for FOI through our taxes already; if you start charging specific groups, you are in effect making them pay twice. Personally I have to say that moves towards charging specific groups would be a nightmare – for one thing, if public authorities think that journalists hide their identities now, what do they think will happen if journalists get charged every time they admit who they are? Sir Alan, possibly partially in jest, asked whether media organisations should be subject to FOI. Again, they weren’t keen, but you can read a tongue in cheek account of what that would mean in one of my previous posts.
So overall, an interesting morning. Higher education didn’t appear to do itself any favours. But the Committee’s line of questioning didn’t give anything away as to where it is going. Changes to charging arrangements for FOI seem to be very much on the table still, and there are still at least four more hearings. It will be some time before we get the final report of the Committee, so don’t hold your breath. But all the way through you’ll be able to read the latest here and on the Save FOI website.