Tag Archive for FOI Commission

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.

1 February launch for Isle of Man FOI

FOIMan highlights the arrival of freedom of information to the Isle of Man.

Tynwald Hill

Tynwald Hill, where the Isle of Man’s laws are annually proclaimed to the people in an open government tradition dating back a millennium

Monday, 1 February, is a big day for a small country in the British Isles. The Isle of Man’s Freedom of Information Act received Royal Assent last year and the first requests under it will be made on Monday. At first only the Cabinet Office and the Department of Environment, Food and Agriculture (DEFA) will have a duty to respond to them, but by January 2018 all public bodies on the Island will have to do so.

Unless you are one of the 85,000 or so who live on the Island you won’t be able to make requests – one of the mechanisms designed to prevent FOI disrupting the provision of services by a relatively small public service. But Islanders will for the first time have a statutory right to information, and existing openness provisions, including the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information, which was introduced in 1996, will remain in place.

Despite the fact that most of us won’t directly benefit from this new right of access, any new piece of FOI legislation is a cause for celebration, and the Isle of Man’s law contains some interesting innovations which I’ll be examining in a forthcoming article. Whilst the FOI Commission continues to scrutinise the UK Act, it is interesting to look at how other jurisdictions tackle the concerns (however reasonable or otherwise we may consider them) that the Government here has raised. The very existence of the FOI Commission has influenced debate in the Isle of Man and no doubt elsewhere.

I’ve provided some assistance to the Isle of Man Government culminating most recently in the delivery of training to Cabinet Office and DEFA staff. Earlier this week I was asked to take part in briefings to the Island’s media and you can hear Manx Radio and 3FM‘s reports, and watch an interview with me for Manx.net to get a sense of what FOI might mean for the Isle of Man.

The cost of public relations vs FOI – research

FOIMan writes about his recent research into the cost of public relations to central government compared to the cost of FOI.

freedom-of-information-graphic-smallThis month’s article for PDP’s Freedom of Information Journal expands on my previous posts here (and here) on research into the cost of public relations as opposed to the cost of FOI. It seems timely to make this available now given that this issue has been mentioned in evidence given to Labour’s alternative FOI Commission this week. The article explores how I conducted the research, what my findings were, but also the way that government departments handled my FOI requests. Suffice it to say that central government would do well to review its own procedures and practices before reforming the legislation.

Rumours reported in the newspapers this week suggest that the government is getting cold feet about the FOI Commission and any proposals to weaken the Act. Perhaps the 30,000 responses to the Commission’s Call for Evidence, many of which sought to defend the legislation, have weakened its resolve.

Evidence to the FOI Commission

FOIMan publishes his evidence to the FOI Commission.

Friday was the deadline for submissions in response to the FOI Commission’s call for evidence. If Twitter last week was any indication, then vast numbers contributed. However, it wasn’t just the volume of contributions that impressed. My hope is that the Commission is equally affected by the tremendous effort and scholarship that was on display.

Perhaps less impressive is my own contribution – the call for evidence happened at my busiest time, which I’m afraid limited what I was able to contribute. However, in the interests of transparency you can read it here.

In summary, my submission argues:

1. No new protection is required for internal deliberations.

2. Similarly no new protection is required for collective Cabinet discussion…

3. …or for assessment of risks, come to that.

4. In principle, I’m against the veto – but if the veto for a handful of cases is the price of preserving openness more generally, I can accept that price.

5. One of my biggest concerns would be any watering down of the existing enforcement and appeal mechanisms under FOI. Not only do I believe that it will slow down and possibly reverse moves towards transparency more generally, but I also think it would be like sending FOI Officers and others responsible for encouraging compliance out to bat with a bail.

6. As previously argued here, I believe that any burden that FOI places on public authorities needs to be considered in comparison to other expenditure, and needs to acknowledge its benefits. In particular I would be concerned if a standard charge was introduced for FOI requests due to its impact on accountability and accessibility.

We’ll have to wait and see what the Commission has to say about our evidence when it reports – possibly as soon as next month.

PR Costs – the responses

FOIMan brings you the responses from government departments to his recent FOI request on public relations.

A comparison of communications v FOI spending in a selection of departments

A comparison of communications v FOI spending in a selection of departments

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the outcome of my FOI requests to central government departments on their expenditure on public relations activities. At the time I promised to publish the actual responses so that you can see for yourself the answers received.

So here are all the responses received to date in one handy document. As will be noted, some departments were very helpful – others considerably less so.

Notably the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Wales Office were prompt in responding and provided straightforward answers to these questions. Several others were less quick but provided thorough and helpful responses.

The Treasury seemed to think that there was an exemption for information not held in one place. DWP don’t seem to be able to track their expenditure efficiently enough to provide a figure within 24 hours of staff time. Some have still to answer – and in some cases haven’t even acknowledged the original request.

The chart above compares communications and FOI expenditure for a selection of departments. I’ve intentionally left off the Ministry of Defence as their £80 million on communications (versus £641,000 on FOI) distorts the chart beyond all usefulness.

As some have suggested, I will of course be using my findings in my response to the FOI Commission’s consultation, and feel free to do so if you are responding.